In a restroom – Hitchens and Mother Teresa

What will follow is an article by Hitchens on Mother Teresa, but reading it reminded me of something that happened to me in the USA last year which I shall start with linked to the otherwise obscure title of this blog.

This was the first and hopefully last time I am ever accosted for my world view in a bar toilet. That convenience being a restroom in Virginia USA the evening of Hitchens talk at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City. Naturally wearing my branded A t-shirt I did stand out. That it said Staff Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science meant that as part of the OUT campaign I was out there with a Red A to a bull in the Men’s Room.

Naturally I did not expect a conversation to start in a restroom with an American, let alone one wearing an Arsenal football top. But he noticed my T shirt and asked about what I was doing. Mentioned that I had just listened to Hitchens and then the fun began.

Because what was worst of all for this young man of catholic faith was the books that Hitchens had written on her –  The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice – was for him all out disrespect for a great person. Now being taken literally on the fly, I pointed out that letters she had written revealed that she did not actually have faith in the supernatural – her belief in belief actually drove her to take a stand which did not help the poverty of people, notably on birth control and safer sex. As a woman that happened to be a nun with a world platform she spoke against the social reform to end poverty – the emancipation of women on equal terms with men in the economic, social and political sphere.

No doubt charity, vaccinations, food, clothing and shelter do give much needed comfort to the poor. These things were much needed in Calcutta (Bengal). It seems less obvious that strict catholic dogma was what above all the poor needed; or that the only way the necessary aid was going to happen was through faith organisations that were promoting the tolerance of the social norms that allowed the poverty to fester.

As I washed my hands, noticing that in the Gents there were baby changing facilities and thinking how good that was he remonstrated with me that it did some good. As I used the hand dryer I pointed to the baby changing facilities pointing out that I had never seen that in England, but it seemed a good idea. I was open to better ways of doing things compared to rigidly defined social and gender norms.

He said well I guess that a heathen atheist would never understand the good people do because of god. I replied that someone wearing an Arsenal top could not be all that bad. I accept that being that close to Washington DC I was in a bubble that is perhaps a different experience to the rest of the USA. Having said that, where else can you get a discussion with a complete stranger in a toilet about Hitchens and Mother Teresa – pity it did not happen at the bar. Would have been more comfortable. Definitely more restful.

Below is the article that brought forth those memories by Hitchens entitled “Belief in Belief”. Enjoy.

A question that interests me very much (and always has) is this: I know that I do not believe in either any god or any religion, and I can give my reasons in a manner that the other side can at least understand, but can the same be said for those who claim that they do believe? A shorter way of putting this is to ask whether our antagonists in this ancient argument truly mean what they appear to say.

The recent disclosure that Mother Teresa had for almost half a century been unable to feel the presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the ear of God listening to her prayers, is of great importance here. (See the recent book of her despairing letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.) Not even her most fervent admirers regarded this woman in any sense as an intellectual, and she evidently struggled to combat her doubts in a highly traditional way—namely, by making ever-more extravagant and even masochistic professions of “faith.” This would be superb confirmation of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis about “belief in belief”— the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.

Even though I have sometimes described her as a fraud (for her collusion with rich oppressors of the poor like the Duvalier family in Haiti and for her other corrupt dealings), I would now hesitate to put Mother Teresa in the same category as a Falwell, a Haggard, a Sharpton, or a Robertson. These men have never done a day’s real work in their lives and are or were simple parasites who pinch themselves every morning at their good fortune at living the easy life of exploiting the gullible. For them, religion is nothing more than a trade, or a racket.

The same, I think, can be said of the numberless clerics convicted of child-rape (why on earth do we allow ourselves the silly euphemism of “abuse”?). Their foul crime is not one of hypocrisy. No priest who sincerely believed even for ten seconds in divine judgment could conceivably endanger his immortal soul in this way, and those in the hierarchy who helped protect such men from punishment in this world are equally and obviously guilty of a hardened and obscene cynicism.

But the racketeering and exploitative side of religion, as with its no-less-marked tendency to generate wars, atrocities, and repressions, isn’t the whole story. What of those who try their best to help others and lead a decent life, attributing this conduct to their belief in a Virgin, a Prophet, or to the story of Exodus, or any other such fabrication? I never cease to wonder, in dialogues with such people, whether they are really saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

To any humanist, for example, it’s perfectly obvious that the city of Cal­cutta would benefit from an influx of volunteer nurses, doctors, inoculators, sewage experts, and others, just as it would not benefit from the attentions of people who regard poverty and death as a secondhand share in the “mystery” of the Crucifixion. There are actually quite a good number of activists of the first type (I spent some time there once, watching the great Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado do his work for UNICEF documenting the massive campaign for vaccination against polio), but for some weird reason the only person anyone can name is a woman who spent her entire life campaigning against birth control—a stupid campaign that Bengal most definitely did not and does not need.

Is it not possible that the missionaries of “faith” regard the objects of their charity as mere raw material—human subjects for a tortured experiment in their own psyches? It seems that, the more Mother Teresa lost conviction in the teachings of her religion, the more energetically she silenced her doubts by ostentatious crusades against divorce, abortion, and contraception using “the poorest of the poor” as her backdrop and her excuse. And does this not degrade such work as she actually did? For her, the helpless beggar was just that—helpless, to be sure, yet for that reason easily available for her own exhausting propaganda. The case for assisting starving Bengalis is complete on its own terms, but most of the money raised for the “Missionaries of Charity” went—as Mother Teresa herself happily admitted—to the building of convents that were consecrated, in effect, to her own ambition and her own very extreme teaching of Catholic dogma. These preachings went dead against the only certain cure for poverty—the emancipation of women from the status and condition of breeding machines—that the human race has ever discovered.

In other words, “faith” is at its most toxic and dangerous point not when it is insincere and hypocritical and corrupt but when it is genuine. At that point, its energy of certainty and self-righteousness can be used, not only to reinforce the Church but also (as Mother Teresa’s continuing reputation demonstrates) to impress even the secular. The evidence now is that this is how she and her confessors squared the circle. Repress your misgivings, overcome your despair, redouble your efforts, and we will make you a saint and later claim that you cured the sick even after your death. It’s at this point that the cynical loops round to meet the naïve and say in effect that anything is permissible as long as it keeps the illusion alive. Again, one has to stand amazed before a clergy who can use, as a recruiting sergeant, a wretched old lady whose own faith, as they well knew, had worn to a husk.

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2 Comments

Filed under AAI Conference 2007, Hitchens, OUT campaign, Religion

2 responses to “In a restroom – Hitchens and Mother Teresa

  1. Ed Myob

    A fine insight into the workings of a mind addicted to religion.

    We can only wonder how many millions of her unaudited dollars the Vatican

    “inherited”.

  2. Matthew W. I. Dunn

    On the contrary, the toilet of a public house is precisely the appropriate place to discuss any of Christopher Hitchens’ views, especially about people of religious faith and what they do.

    When Richard Dawkins rents an apartment in some filthy, stench-infested slum washing, feeding, and just holding the hand of those dying and unwanted, taking from his own precious schedule of interviews and lectures, then he has the right to criticize.

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