Saturday, June 26, 2010

The prince and the polemicist

I've written before about Christopher Hitchens and his penchant for overblown rhetoric. Well, he's at it again, this time with a scathing attack on none other than Prince Charles. As a longtime advocate of the dismantling of the monarchy, you might think this would be music to my ears. Well, it's not. Hitchens' diatribe is mean-spirited and intellectually flawed.

The mean-spirited aspects are easily catalogued and of lesser significance. Hitchens calls Prince Charles "a very silly man", "a moral and intellectual weakling", "a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts" whose "empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant".

What is of more interest to me than all this name calling is the substance of Hitchens' piece, which concerns a speech the prince gave recently at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. It turns out that Prince Charles is the patron of the Centre, and in his speech he said:
It has been a great concern of mine to affirm and encourage those groups and faith communities that are in the minority in this country. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years, I have tried to find as many ways as possible to help integrate them into British society and to build good relationships between our faith communities. I happen to believe this is best achieved by emphasizing unity through diversity. Only in this way can we ensure fairness and build mutual respect in our country. And if we get it right here then perhaps we might be able to offer an example in the wider world.
Hitchens contemptuously labels this as "Islamophilia" and writes:
... as he paged his way through his dreary wad of babble, there must have been some wolfish smiles among his Muslim audience.
This kind of innuendo is typical: here and in his other writings, Hitchens often hints at Muslim fanaticism. In this case, at least, it seems to be entirely the product of his imagination.

Prince Charles' speech was titled "Islam and the Environment". He pointed out that "Many of Nature's vital, life-support systems are now struggling to cope under the strain of global industrialization", and went on to argue that:
... what is less obvious is the attitude and general outlook which perpetuate this dangerously destructive approach. It is an approach that acts contrary to the teachings of each and every one of the world's sacred traditions, including Islam.
Prince Charles explained that he was referring to "a mechanistic and reductionist approach to our scientific understanding of the world around us." It is perhaps not surprising that Hitchens, one of the "new atheists" and author of Good is Not Great, characterizes this as a claim that "the scientific worldview" is "an affront to all the world's "sacred traditions." But this misconstrues what the prince was saying. Later on in his speech, Prince Charles argued that:
... there is a point beyond which empiricism cannot make complete sense of the world. It works by establishing facts through testing them by the scientific process. It is one kind of language and a very fine one, but it is a language not able to fathom experiences like faith or the meaning of things – it is not able to articulate matters of the soul.
Hitchens dismisses this as "vapid talk about the 'soul' of the universe". But although the prince made liberal use of words like "soul", "spiritual", and "faith", his arguments do not stand or fall on a narrow religious interpretation. He was pointing out that science has limits, and the temptation to pretend otherwise may lead us astray. Prince Charles sees part of the solution in "the traditional teachings, like those found in Islam that define our relationship with the natural world". Not everyone will share his interpretation, but it's hardly the "farrago of nonsense" that Hitchens alleges.

I found the prince's speech interesting and even thought-provoking. Read it yourself and see what you think.
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