Christopher Hitchens in Slate:
Those of us in the fast-growing atheist community who have long suspected that there is a change in the zeitgeist concerning “faith” can take some encouragement from the decision of the New York Times Magazine to feature professor Mark Lilla on the cover of the Aug. 19 edition. But we also, on reading the extremely lucid extract from his new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, are expected to take some harsh punishment. Briefly stated, the Lilla thesis is as follows:
- The notion of a “separation” of church and state comes from a unique historical contingency of desperate and destructive warfare between discrepant Christian sects, which led Thomas Hobbes to propose a historical compromise in the pages of his 17th-century masterpiece, Leviathan. There is no general reason why Hobbes’ proposal will work at all times or in all places.
- Human beings are pattern-seeking animals who will prefer even a bad theory or a conspiracy theory to no theory at all, and they are thus (in an excellent term derived by Lilla from Jean-Jacques Rousseau) by nature “theotropic,” or inclined toward religion.
- That instinct being stronger than any discrete historical moment, it is idle to imagine that mere scientific or material progress will abolish the worshipping impulse.
- Liberalism is especially implicated in this problem, because the desire for a better world very often takes a religious form, and thus it is wishful to identify “belief” with the old forces of reaction, because it will also underpin utopian or messianic or other social-engineering fantasies.
Taken separately, all these points are valid in and of themselves. Examined more closely, they do not cohere as well as all that.