In 1994, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) made a documentary for BBC called Hell’s Angel. It was a bold and highly controversial investigation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, vaunted by many devotees as a saint. Prior to Hitchens’ critique, almost every book or film about Teresa portrayed her as a holy icon, worthy of reverence, a hero of charity on behalf of the wretched of the earth. But the great iconoclast Hitchens, in his book The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practise, dared to ask some inconvenient questions about Mother Teresa.
Seeing beyond the mist of idealization and deification, which had turned Teresa into a religious celebrity of worldwide prominence, Hitchens attempts to reveal the nitty-gritty of her actions and relationships. He especially focuses on her campaigns against contraception and abortion, and her questionable relationships with right-wing political leaders.
Hitchens discovers that Mother Teresa’s career was far from spotless and
“Charles Keating, for instance, donated more than $1 million bucks to her – much or all of it gained from his avowedly criminal activities in the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s. (…) Perhaps some of this can be excused by her need to drum up charitable contribuitons from all possible sources for her Missionaries of Charity. But there seems to be much more to it. Why was she so keen on hanging around such lowlives as the vicious dictator Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier of Haiti? (…) This behaviour might be forgiven if the charity work that Mother Teresa was doing in Calcutta for decades were actually worth doing – but of even this there are strong doubts. Her devotion to the poor, the diseased, and the friendless would seem to be exemplary of the best that religion can do. Why is it that, even though one of her many bank accounts (this one in Utah) contained the sum of $50 million, her hospitals around the world were so poorly equipped?” (JOSHI, p. 237)
Teresa belief in her God-given mission to fight the two world’s most horrible evils – abortion and contraception – is also a theme which Hitchens explores with fierce criticism, especially considering that India has a population of more than 1 billion and 200 million people (and with a massive problem of undernourishment and widespread hunger). “It is difficult to spend any time in Calcutta and conclude that what it most needs is a campaign against population control” (HITCHENS, p. 24).
Teresa’s missionary endeavour had also as one of its main goals, of course, conversion. As Joshi points out, she believed it was her duty to convert “as many non-Catholics as possible so that hell is not filled even more than it already is with benighted heretics and unbelievers.” (JOSHI, 238) She tried to convince agonizing Hindus and Muslims to consent to baptism by asking them: do you want a “ticket to heaven”? Susan Shields, who worked with Mother Teresa, revealed also that those who didn’t consent to be baptized Christians were secretly baptised anyway: Teresa used to pretend she was cooling the forehead of the diseased with a wet cloth, while she said quietly the necessary words of baptism. Perhaps she truly believed she was saving them from burning in the ever-lasting fires of hellish torture for the terrible sin of remaining faithful to Hinduism or Islam.
I would argue that to worship such a woman, as if she was sacrosanct and morally irreproachable, is a dangerous attitude we should avoid as highly pernicious idolatry. We only need to remember the preposterous claim she made about the AIDS (SIDA) epidemic – “it is just retribution for improper sexual conduct” – to be aware of how questionable is her purported saintliness. She and many other people of the cloth “have maintained that AIDS is a punishment meted out to homosexuals for their sinful behavior.” (JOSHI, p. 241). I ask you, fellow earthlings: do you believe that homophobia and sectarianism deserve to be celebrated as saintly virtues? Should we worship a nun who went on a Cruzade against condoms, even though we know of the millions of lives that could have been saved if safe-sex campaigns were not boycotted by religious leaders?
In the last decades, we have seem an upsurge of best-selling books from atheists and agnostics, from sceptics and freethinkers. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and André Comte-Sponville’s L’Esprit de L’Athéisme are among the more widely read and discussed of them. Christopher Hitchens has joined this wave of atheistic literature with his highly controversial God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he “draws keenly upon his world travels as a political journalist and sometime foreign correspondent, revealing at first hand how religion actually operates in the real world” (JOSHI, p. 239). This, in a nutshell, is Hitchens’s conclusion:
“My four irreducible objections to religion are: 1) it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; 2) because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism; 3) it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression; and 4) it is ultimately grounded on wishful-thinking.” – CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, God is Not Great
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens (1995, Verso, 96 pgs)
Synopsis: “Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, feted by politicians, the Church and the world’s media, Mother Teresa of Calcutta appears to be on the fast track to sainthood. But what, asks Christopher Hitchens, makes Mother Teresa so divine? In a frank expose of the Teresa cult, Hitchens details the nature and limits of one woman’s mission to the world’s poor. He probes the source of the heroic status bestowed upon an Albanian nun whose only declared wish is to serve God. He asks whether Mother Teresa’s good works answer any higher purpose than the need of the world’s privileged to see someone, somewhere, doing something for the Third World. He unmasks pseudo-miracles, questions Mother Teresa’s fitness to adjudicate on matters of sex and reproduction, and reports on a version of saintly ubiquity which affords genial relations with dictators, corrupt tycoons and convicted frauds.”
- Hitchens’ Mommie Dearest at Slate Magazine
- Michael Hakeem, Ph.D., The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa