I had the privilege just a few nights ago to address the annual Iftar Dinner which was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in Niles. This event—at the heart of which is a festive meal signaling the end of the daily Ramadan fast—brings Christians and Muslims together for fellowship, prayer, and conversation. I had been asked to reflect briefly on the topic of the future of religion in America. Given my religiously mixed audience, I decided to speak on the responsibility that all people of faith have in the presence of the growing threat of ideological secularism in our society. A 2008 Pew Forum study showed that the fastest-growing “religious” denomination in American is the “nones,” those who claim no formal religious affiliation. It furthermore showed that there is no substantial difference in the attitudes of believers and non-believers in regard to a wide range of moral and political issues. What both of these data indicate is that secularism—the conviction that God, even if he exists, doesn’t much matter—is on the rise.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens. He is a British writer and cultural commentator who lives and works in Washington, D.C. For decades now, he has been observing the political/societal scene and writing about it in a particularly insightful, witty, and acerbic manner. Early in his career, he was something of a Trotskyite, but in the years following September 11th, he emerged as a strong advocate of the Iraq war and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues on the left, a supporter of George W. Bush. He is best known, certainly, for his recent contributions as a critic of religion. His book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything appeared a couple of years ago and proved to be a bestseller. Since the publication of this text, Hitchens has travelled the country debating a series of religious thinkers—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—meeting them with an extremely swift mind and wickedly barbed tongue. Along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, he is one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism, the movement that advocates an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the claims of faith. I think it’s fair to say that Hitchens is playing today the role that another brilliant Englishman, Bertrand Russell, played nearly a century ago, namely, that of religion’s public enemy number one.
I’ve written often about Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most prominent atheist. Most recently, I did a piece on the CNN blog, urging Christians to pray for Hitchens as he battles a very serious form of cancer—and to my astonishment, this benign recommendation was met with an extraordinarily negative reaction from atheists. But that’s a story for another day. On my recent vacation, I took two books with me, Christopher Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22, which I had begun and wanted to finish, and his brother Peter Hitchens’s The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, a stunning account of the younger Hitchens’s journey through militant Trotskyite atheism to a robust Christianity. It was a fascinating, and I must admit rather unnerving, experience to overhear, as it were, the brothers Hitchens debating with one another in my own head. Things got so intense that Christopher Hitchens actually appeared in one of my dreams during the vacation!
So many people had urged me to comment on the new film “Eat, Pray, Love” that I felt obligated to see it on its opening weekend. The theater in which I viewed the movie was pretty much full, and the gender ratio was approximately 92% female, 8% male. The storyline of “Eat, Pray, Love” adheres fairly closely to the classic spiritual quest trajectory. As the narrative commences, our heroine, Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts), finds herself in a sort of mid-life crisis. Her marriage has lost its spark, her job is going nowhere, and her friends don’t know how to help her. In one of the most affecting moment in the movie, Liz kneels down and, with tears, simply begs God to show her the way.
Our Catholicism Project film crew arrived at the shores of large lake in far northwest Ireland, in the county of Donegal. We stepped onto a ferry and were taken to an island in the middle of the lake. On the island was a collection of buildings, which in both architecture and color reminded me vividly of Alcatraz prison. The weather that day was horrific: temperature around 50, heavy winds, and a steady cold rainfall. Our hosts offered us tea and scones and then we made our way onto the island to begin our work. Out of the mists and the rain emerged the figures that we had come to film. They were swathed in raincoats, hoods, and jackets, but their feet were bare. Most of them carried rosaries in their hands, and some of them were praying aloud. A few were making their way, on their knees, around rude “beds” of stone, and one woman was standing against a wall in the attitude of the crucified Christ. Some of the more elderly denizens of the island were walking with a halting, pained gait. We had come to Lough Derg, otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory.