Whether or not you like Christopher Hitchens, one thing is certain: he can turn an incisive phrase. At his best, Hitchens writes with an acerbic aplomb that can be charming; at his worst, he is downright nasty.
With the latter Hitchens in mind, I have not yet been able to bring myself to read his jeremiad, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I read a fair amount of history, so don’t need Hitchens twisting the knife or re-stating the obvious. Secular preaching to the atheist choir is not my cup of tea.
Hitchens’ latest object of scorn is a much more delicious target: Prince Charles, whom Hitchens hilariously calls the “prince of piffle.” You can find Hitchens’ broadside over at Slate, and here are some choice excerpts:
So the speech made by Prince Charles at Oxford last week might bear a little scrutiny. Discussing one of his favorite topics, the “environment,” he announced that the main problem arose from a “deep, inner crisis of the soul” and that the “de-souling” of humanity probably went back as far as Galileo. In his view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, “where mechanistic thinking is so predominant,” and which “goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.” He described the scientific worldview as an affront to all the world’s “sacred traditions.” Then for the climax:
“As a result, Nature has been completely objectified—She has become an it—and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.”
We have known for a long time that Prince Charles’ empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant. He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post.
The last sentence caught my attention, so I hit the hyperlink to read about this anthropologist whose name I have never once encountered after years of studying anthropology. Van der Post sold millions of books and apparently was a charlatan. When the mystic mixes with the anthropologist, it is the kind of thing that attracts a certain kind of crowd:
Van der Post was a Jungian mystic and a spiritual adviser to Prince Charles; according to British newspapers, he taught the prince to talk to his plants. In 1982 Charles made him godfather to his heir, Prince William. Van der Post was also a close friend of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, exerting an influence on her policy in South Africa.
He had a following in the United States as well. For several years, he gave the Advent sermon at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The year he died, he attended a celebration of his work in Boulder, Colo., and 4,000 people came.
Four thousand credulous and worshipful souls in Boulder! Unsurprising. There is an ethereal, uncritical vibe in Boulder and the palpable feeling, easily discovered in any coffee shop or marijuana dispensary, that everything is alive and vaguely connected as universal soul. I have nothing against such harmless harmony, but Hitchens sternly warns against the consequences of such peaceful and complacent love-think:
[As Prince Charles] paged his way through his dreary wad of babble, there must have been some wolfish smiles among his Muslim audience. I quote from a recent document published by the Islamic Forum of Europe, a group dedicated to the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate and the imposition of sharia, which has been very active in London mosques and in the infiltration of local political parties. “The primary work” in the establishment of a future Muslim empire, it announces, “is in Europe, because it is this continent, despite all the furore about its achievements, which has a moral and spiritual vacuum.”
So this is where all the vapid talk about the “soul” of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The “vacuum” will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now.
It is a long way from vapid talk of the soul to the establishment of a radical Islamic world empire, and one can reasonably disagree. But the image Hitchens conjures with this line — credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran — is one for the ages.