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"One could go further and say that secular totalitarianism has actually provided us with the summa of human evil. The examples most in common use--those of the Hitler and Stalin regimes--show us with terrible clarity what can happen when men usurp the role of gods. When I consult with my secular and atheist friends, I find that this has become the most common and frequent objection that they encounter from religious audiences. The point deserves a detailed reply." (p. 230)
Hitchens observes that if the two regimes mentioned are examples of the despotism called totalitarianism, then it has to be further observed that "For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute state was intimately bound up with religion." These old theocracies wanted not just your money and allegiance, but "the contents of your heart and your head." Thus were dictators in many of the old civilizations also gods.
Eventually, the divine right of rulers began to give way to modern notions of equality. But the idea of the ideal, utopian condition, an idea of religion, did not die easily and led many to commit crimes in the name of creating a secular Eden. One of the first attempts at an Edenic society was made in, of all places, Paraguay, by Jesuit priests. "It managed to combine the maximum of egalitarianism with the maximum of unfreedom, and could only be kept going by the maximum of fear....the object of perfecting the species--which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse--is in essence a religious one." (p. 232). Orwell said, "a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy." (p. 232) I find this argument convincing.
Hitchens strongly implies that the totalitarianism of religion made it naturally sympathetic to or compliant with the "'secular' totalitarians of our time." He reviews the record of the Catholic church as an opponent of tyranny and finds it damning. Japan had an actual deity as head of state, and millions died at his hand or for his glory.
"Thus, those who invoke 'secular' tyranny in contrast to religion are hoping that we will forget two things: the connection between the Christian churches and fascism, and the capitulation of of the churches to National Socialism" (p 242).
Hitchens moves on to cover the Russian and Chinese totalitarians, situations in which there was not much church/state overlap. In these attempted utopias, the state sought to be a replacement for religion.
This quote might serve as a summary of Hitchens' finely argued chapter:
"All that totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse--the need to worship--can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency" (p. 247). Those who consider Hitchens to be unbending toward religion should note the concession (a small one) within this statement.
No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream--alone.
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness