Christopher Hitchens Is a Treasure
A good, useful atheist.


But is this actually the way things have worked out? If there were no Annunciation of the angel to Mary of Nazareth, if there were no birth of the Son of God in a decrepit stable, if there were no passion, death, and resurrection — or even if all memory and record of such events had been erased — would the world have lost anything of permanent human value? There are, in fact, a number of points of great significance for human conscience and politics, and even science, that the human race might never have come to. As Jürgen Habermas points out, nearly all the basic ideals of the Enlightenment – such as fraternity, not to say, liberty and equality — derive from Christianity, not from Greece or Rome.

Set aside any religious significance to the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Set aside any hint of redemption and eternal life. Consider only its implications for politics and science. Only in the Jewish and Christian conception of God is God “Spirit and Truth,” and more concerned about what goes on in individual conscience than in outward gesture. From this conception derives the argument for liberty of conscience in George Mason, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.

In the moderating habits that Judaism and Christianity partly learned from pagan ethical systems, and considerably deepened with their own resources, Alfred North Whitehead saw the roots of the asceticism, self-denial, discipline, long years of study, dedication to honesty, and limpid transparency which are so necessary for sustained scientific work. Here he also found the conviction that everything in the universe, being the fruit of a single intelligence, is in principle understandable and to be worth all the arduous efforts to try to grasp it. Here other scholars (Boorstin, Landes) have found the conviction that it is the human vocation, in the image of the Creator, to be creative, inventive, and to help complete the evolving work of creation.

In our generation, Habermas has called for a greater tolerance on the part of atheists toward religious believers, and a kind of mutual human respect, which will demand from atheists an attempt to state honestly all their debts to the religious civilization of the West — the womb in which modern science gestated and received its dynamism.

In a more limited sense, of course, Hitchens is correct. If all we had to depend upon were science, empiricism, and our own inquiring minds, we might still have discovered the existence of God (but not the God of Judaism and Christianity) — as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. Reason might well have shown us — did, in fact, show us — that there is a living intelligence deep down in everything on earth and in the skies above. All earthly things are alive with reasons, connections, and also with oddities yet to become better understood, puzzles yet to be solved. We learn by experiment that if we apply our minds to trying to understand how things truly are, how they work, how they are best used, there seems always to be some intelligible light within things that yields up precious satisfactions to the hungry mind. Everything that is seems understandable — in principle, if not just yet. This is the outer limit to his sense of the divine that Einstein confesses (as quoted by Hitchens):

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Engaged in polemics, atheists like to do two things, which certainly Hitchens does. The first is to make fun of believers on every matter possible, even when that requires outrageous misstatements of fact and employs such clumsy logic as they would mock in others. The second is to generate as many incoherencies in the faith of believers as their fertile minds can make up. Hitchens is in our time one of the great masters of mockery and satire. He out-pains Tom Paine, the same Thomas Paine, mocker of the Bible-toting, who endured imprisonment in France after 1789, forewarning the Jacobins that their atheism would cut the ground out from under their declared human rights. In moral heroism, standing up against angry mobs, Hitchens is often Paine’s equal, just as, like Paine, Hitchens seems quite annoyed by Him in Whom he does not believe.

One of the favorite objects of Hitchens’s mockery is the Jewish and Christian belief in the omnipotence and omniscience of God, proud fortresses that once protected the claim that God is good against the maelstrom of evils that overcome the just and the unjust alike. Hitchens puts in mind Richard Dawkins, who quotes one rather amusing quatrain debunking omnipotence and omniscience:

Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?

A cute little quatrain. But it does have the defect of putting God in time as though He were just another schmuck like the rest of us. In the classic formulation, “omniscience” and “omnipotence” characterize a being outside of time, unchanging, unchanged. Thus, he has no “future” mind, but only a present mind, in which all Time is present to Him as if in simultaneity. The god presented us by atheists seems awfully anthropomorphic and fundamentalist. The eternalness of the mind and will of God, in the Judeo-Christian view, does not forbid his creation from taking a wild, unpredictable, highly contingent adventure through history. It holds that the Creator’s relation to his creation is not at all what Dawkins and Hitchens project.

For the atheist — for Hitchens — though, does the problem of goodness create an intellectual problem? If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least so often as to be quite striking? Put another way: Isn’t it unlikely that random chance alone has arranged the world so that many human qualities — the very ones that Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Jews and Christians find good on other grounds — should also work better for the survival of the human race? It is at least mildly interesting that philosophy, revealed religion, and random natural selection lead to many of the same moral principles. Perhaps that explains why some atheists are so nobly good (the “secular saints” of Albert Camus), and why some insist on being credited (by believers) with being good. Some do seem to hate it when believers borrow that awful line from Dostoevsky: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

On the other hand, Judaism and Christianity do add insights and virtues that derive from other forms of intelligence than narrow reason. It was against common sense and practical reason for the Americans in 1776, without an army and without a navy, to make war on the greatest naval and military power in the world. But their Declaration did fit with the faith that the reason God created the world was to offer his friendship to every woman and every man; and as Thomas Jefferson put it, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” (Or in the words of William Penn: If God gave us friendship, then also freedom.) Our Founders concluded that even when they prayed to the same Providence as the British, those who fight for freedom are better in tune with God’s ultimate purposes than those who, though apparently stronger, fight to repress it.

Hitchens himself is a public protagonist of compassion and solidarity. But these come, don’t they, from the same Creator to whom Judaism and Christianity, as well as the Declaration of Independence, point.

Hitchens, in sum, sets for himself moral limits that in his view come from reason. And the standards Hitchens sets are normally quite high. Except when, contrary to the American founding, he is venting his bile against God, who, he says, does not exist. Still, even for believers Hitchens is useful. One can take the rake of his arguments to pull out dead grass in one’s own sloppy thinking about God.

<title>God Is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens</title>