The Illusory Vs. The Real Mother Teresa by Michael Hakeem (August 1996)

 Review of The Missionary Position

by Christopher Hitchens

The origin of Mother Teresa’s worldwide fame has been traced to an interview of her by Malcolm Muggeridge, televised on BBC, followed by a BBC filming in Calcutta of her and her work, “Something Beautiful for God,” which Muggeridge initiated, and his enormously successful book by the same title (more than 300,000 copies sold, reprinted 20 times and translated into 13 languages). Before being catapulted overnight into world renown, she was an obscure nun whose name was not known to the general public and whom Muggeridge had never even heard of. This is the same Malcolm Muggeridge who often talks like a mystic and has for long nourished an intense love affair with Jesus. His book shows he was enraptured by its subject.

One incident, related by Hitchens, that occurred during the filming is sufficient to dismiss Muggeridge as a competent and credible observer of Mother Teresa. During the filming, a topnotch photographer sought to take pictures of the interior of a building Mother Teresa calls “The House of the Dying.” It was very dark and the photographer expressed doubts about the outcome. He then remembered that he had brought along a new Kodak film that he had never used before and decided to try it out. On returning to England, he and Muggeridge attended a previewing of the film. The photographer was amazed at the clarity of the pictures. He was on the verge of giving three cheers for Kodak when Muggeridge interrupted: “It’s divine light! It’s Mother Teresa. You’ll find that it’s divine light, old boy.” Muggeridge goes on to explain that the photographic success was a reflection of the presence of “supernatural luminosity.” His biographer reports that Muggeridge was “absolutely convinced that this was a miracle and that the light was supernatural. . . . The incident had a great effect on him and for a time he spoke about it endlessly.” Soon, the newspapers were calling the photographer to ask about the miracle they were told he witnessed in India. Nothing more was needed to solidify Mother Teresa’s awesome status than to have her connected to a supernatural event.

Why should freethinkers read Hitchens’ book? Surely Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity are not unique. The global map is studded with charitable missions, some of them, like Mother Teresa’s, serving the most wretched on the the face of the earth. But no other head of one has been accorded such significance and become the object of such fabulous adoration as she has.

Hitchens writes: “Ever since Something Beautiful for God the critic of Mother Teresa in small things, as well as great ones, has had to operate against an enormous weight of received opinion, a weight made no easier to shift by the fact that it is made up quite literally of illusion.” That is the nub of the issue. Freethinkers should be specialists in demolishing received opinion that has created reputations built on illusion and ignorance of the facts — and not only that of Jesus. Hitchens, who has to be counted a freethinker, is such a specialist, and his book can serve as a model of how to go about the job of demolition. It is a powerfully written and tightly reasoned attack on the illusions that have made of Mother Teresa an impregnable icon.

The esteem with which Mother Teresa is held can hardly be exaggerated. She has been feted by numerous heads of state including Presidents Reagan and Clinton. She is reported to have received honorary degrees from universities. She was invited to address the United Nations, an occasion attended by an audience unprecedented in size. It has become de rigueur for celebrities who find themselves in that region to pay a visit to Mother Teresa in Calcutta.

She is often turned to for advice on the solution to poverty and other social problems. She has traveled round the earth many times and is everywhere received with great enthusiasm and reverence. She has received a very large number of prizes, awards, and honors, among them the Nobel Peace Prize. She is regarded as a towering presence and as a thinker of singular profundity. A large number of books have been published about her, all, before Hitchens’, extremely laudatory. There are quite a number of books that collect Mother Teresa’s utterances (she herself has written very little). These are presented as precious and inimitable gems of wisdom.

It takes a certain mentality to uncritically swallow wholly unexamined the image of Mother Teresa projected in the received opinion. That mentality is known to Hitchens and he refers to it a number of times:

“Once the decision is taken to do without awe and reverence, if only for a moment, the Mother Teresa phenomenon assumes the proportions of the ordinary and even the political.” He refers to “Mother Teresa, one of the few untouchables in the mental universe of the mediocre and the credulous.”

“What follows here is an argument not with a deceiver but with the deceived. If Mother Teresa is the adored object of many credulous and uncritical observers, then the blame is not hers, or hers alone. In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjuror is only the instrument of the audience.”

Who but a freethinker could burst the enormous bubble of goodwill and ennoblement that surrounds this wizened octogenarian nun whose supposed single, solitary concern is to self-sacrificingly set about doing good works — not, incidentally, for the sake of her conscience or for the sake of those she ministers to — but for the sake of God and in obedience to his command? Hitchens’ book destroys the illusion and gives abundant evidence that the real Mother Teresa bears little resemblance to it. He summarizes the real Mother Teresa as “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly secular powers.”

Practically all her utterances (Hitchens’ book gives abundant examples) are religious inanities, vacuous assertions, and ignorant observations. One can only be appalled by the lack of intellectual sophistication of her admirers who hold her in such high esteem and who seize upon her every asinine comment as a sign of her astuteness and philosophical depth. And this includes heads of state and the Nobel Prize committee members.

Hitchens points out, “When Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, few people had the poor taste to ask what she had ever done, or even claimed to do, for the cause of peace.” In fact, he could have pointed out that, to the extent that those scholars who claim that overpopulation is one of the factors that can lead to war are correct, her opposition to any effective limitation on the growth of population implicates her in war rather than peace. In her lengthy address at the Nobel ceremonies, which took on the cast of a religious sermon, about the only time she mentioned war and peace was in the following: “I think that today peace is threatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, a direct killing of a child by its own mother . . . . Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace . . . . Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.” Even after this, the Nobel Committee, apparently no more informed about the issue of war and peace than she, did not rescind her award.

Strewn throughout Hitchens’ book are many examples of the worthlessness of her advice and deliberations on the issues of the day: AIDS is a just retribution for improper sexual misconduct. The problems facing Calcutta are due to the fact that it is too distant from Jesus. “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” After the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal exploded and toxic chemicals killed 2500 people and permanently impaired the health of many thousands, Mother Teresa went there post haste. Investigation later revealed a pattern of negligence by the corporation and showed that previous warnings about lack of safety at the plant had been ignored by it. Throngs of angry relatives of victims greeted her at the airport and asked her advice and counsel. She gave it. She intoned her usual homily for solving complex problems: “Forgive, forgive, forgive.” A group of residents in one of the worst slums in the nation’s capital confronted her on her visit there and told her that they needed housing, jobs, and services — not charity. They asked her what she was going to do about it. She advised, “First we must learn to love one another.”

Some will say it is churlish and petty to criticize Mother Teresa when she does such great and heroic medical and charitable work for the destitute and sick — for the “poorest of the poor,” as she puts it. But how much is known about what she is doing or whether she is doing good or harm, or more of one than the other? Where are the scientific researches done by outside, objective scholars to show whether her Missionaries of Charity does even what it could or should be doing given the great resources that pour into it. Who would dare even suggest an investigation and evaluation?

The little that is known about what goes on at the Missionaries of Charity is not encouraging. Hitchens dug up an article that appeared in the noted British medical journal, The Lancet (September, 1994). The article is by a physician who visited and inspected the Calcutta facility. He was quite disturbed by what he saw. He observed misdiagnoses and administration of inappropriate medications. He was particularly appalled that no strong analgesics were used to control intractable pain.

How bad things are in Mother Teresa’s care of the sick, and how primitive her thinking is in other respects as well, can be seen in the observations Hitchens received from a host of former employees and volunteers in the Missionaries of Charity. After a critical film of his on the order was televised, he received communications from them. He used only those who were willing to have their names used and who answered certain inquiries that assured authenticity. The picture presented by this evidence reveals the sharp contrast between the received opinion about her work and the reality, and it relates some of the harm she does. It is not necessary to cite here all the reported negligence and malpractices, which range from repeatedly using the same injection needles without sterilizing them to a refusal to send to the hospital those in clear need of surgery.

Why does not Mother Teresa do better? She cannot because she is a passionately religious individual. The figure that dominates her thoughts and her talk is God. He is central to every breath she takes and every word that passes her lips. As was pointed out above, she repeatedly says that what she does is in the name of God. It is for God’s sake that she helps the poor, sick, and dying. She claims that she never asks for donations. Money comes to her, she explains, through the providence of God. God sends money her way because she is doing what he wants her to do. If God did not want her to care for people, she says, he would not send the money. In short, contrary to the prevailing perception, she is not necessarily a warm and loving person motivated by an overwhelming compassion. She is just dutifully submitting to God’s bidding. By her own admission, if he did not have money sent to her, she would do nothing to try to get donations so she could help. God would not want it, and she is bound by God’s will.

The physician who wrote the critical article in The Lancet is an astute observer. After condemning the fact that there was no rational search for diagnosis and treatment in the Calcutta facility, he explains: “Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning: her rules are designed to prevent any drift toward materialism.” Hitchens expounds on the same theme: “The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.”

Mother Teresa is thoroughly saturated with a primitive fundamentalist religious worldview that sees pain, hardship, and suffering as ennobling experiences and a beautiful expression of affiliation with Jesus Christ and his ordeal on the cross. Hitchens reports that in a filmed interview Mother Teresa herself tells of a patient suffering unbearable pain from terminal cancer: “With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told the patient: ‘You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.'” Apparently unaware that the response of the sufferer was a put-down, she freely related it: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”

It should go without saying that a book review is always a mere skeleton, nothing more than a foretaste, of the book itself. There is much more in Hitchens’ work, including some rather shocking details about her activities, not touched upon here. He shows her political wiliness, all but missed by her admirers who picture her as innocent of such matters; her stealthy baptism of dying nonChristians; her acceptance of money from unsavory characters and crooks; her activities as emissary of the pope; her partiality to — or at least her lack of repulsion of — dictators, even so horrible a character as Hoxha of Albania; her willingness to sacrifice the needs of the poor for the requirements of dogma; her enforcing of austerity in the midst of abundance; her dictatorial rule; her work being at bottom a fundamentalist religious campaign; and much more. And finally one can’t resist mentioning her opposition to canning tomatoes for preserving for future use because there is absolutely no need to do so since God will provide.

Freethinkers owe Hitchens a debt of gratitude for providing a brilliant example of the repudiation of received opinion and its replacement with an exercise in critical inquiry that results in the smashing of illusion and unmasking its beneficiary, in this instance Mother Teresa, and exposing her to the piercing light of reality, especially when the beneficiary has been protected from exposure by ensconcement behind the massive stronghold of religion.

Michael Hakeem is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his wife Helen are members of the Foundation’s Executive Council and are frequent volunteers.

Freedom From Religion Foundation