One of the writers whose courage and polemical force I highly admire is Christopher Hitchens. He gives frequent proof of a passionate honesty, which sometimes has obliged him to criticize ideological soul mates when he thinks they are wrong on some important matter. Many of our colleagues today pretend publicly to have no enemies on the Left out of a panicky fear that they might “help the wrong people” on the evil Right. Though always a man of the Left, Hitchens will have none of that.
Another thing: He does his homework and he thinks clearly. If you go to debate him, you had better think things through rather carefully and well, for his is a well-stocked, quick, and merciless mind. Withal, he is a brave and good man — and an excellent man (so others tell me) to have a drink with.
Normally, too, Hitchens is a fair man in debate — although employing often enough those wicked and withering rhetorical ploys that the British often display in verbal jousting. Agent Provocateur is Hitchens’s chosen pose. But this time it is a bit disappointing to find so much hostility and so many — unusually many — intellectual missteps in his latest tirade (not his first) against religion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
For something peculiar happens to Hitchens when he wrestles against God with murderous intent. Hitchens always loses (and may secretly suspect that). Preposterous as this seems, one senses he may fear that one day he will wake up and see it all plainly, right before his eyes. Otherwise, why year after year keep striking another stake in the heart of God?
Like many anti-religious polemicists, Hitchens in his new book suggests that believers in God believe in a Designer, whereas experience shows that this world is of inferior design. Indeed, he writes:
Thomas Jefferson in old age was fond of the analogy of the timepiece in his own case, and would write to friends who inquired after his health that the odd spring was breaking and the occasional wheel wearing out. This of course raises the uncomfortable (for believers) idea of the built-in fault that no repairman can fix. Should this be counted as part of the “design” as well? (As usual, those who take the credit for the one will fall silent and start shuffling when it comes to the other side of the ledger).
Hitchens seems to hold that believers think of the Creator as a simple-minded Geometer, a Rationalist Extraordinaire, a two-times-two-equals-four kind of god, a flawless Watchmaker, a bit of a Goody-goody, a cosmic Boy Scout. If that is so — Hitchens leaps for your throat — then evidence is overwhelming that this Creator botched things up, like a rank amateur. In short, evidence all around us shows there is no such god.
Let’s be honest. The God who made this world is certainly no Rationalist, Utopian, or Perfectionist. We can see for ourselves that most acorns fall without ever generating a single oak tree. Some species die away — perhaps as many as 90 percent of all that have ever lived upon this earth have already perished. Infants are stillborn, others born deformed. Children are orphaned, and little girls, terrified, sob at night in their beds. Human sex seems almost a cosmic trick played upon us, a joke, a game that angels laugh at. ’Tis a most imperfect world that this Designer has designed.
But suppose God is not like the Hitchens model. Suppose that God is not a Rationalist, a Logician, a straight-line Geometer-of-the-skies. Suppose that the Creator God deliberately made a world of probabilities and failures, of waste and profusion, of suffering and hardships and frustrations. Suppose that He loved the idea of an unformed history, slowly developing (almost like an organism), nearly everything good won the hard way. Suppose that He loved chance, crossing chains of probabilities, freakish accidents, wild and unnecessary profusion, contingencies of every sort — to keep even angels guessing. Suppose He desired a world of indetermination, with all its blooming, buzzing confusion, so that within it freedom could spread out its wings, experiment, and find its own way.
Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
– Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins
At one point, Hitchens proposes a thought experiment that goes like this: Practically everything in civilization is wiped out. The human race has to start all over again. “If we lost all our hard-won knowledge and all our archives, and all our ethics and all our morals…and had to reconstruct everything essential from scratch, it is difficult to imagine at what point we would need to remind or reassure ourselves that Jesus was born of a virgin.”