Recently, I visited the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, to listen to a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza on atheism. This is the first debate that I have ever heard Christopher lose. In it, I heard Christopher describe his own view of the world, which may be abbreviated as follows: It was just 100,000 years ago that humans finally appeared on this planet. On average, these poor creatures died by age 25, and suffered (often horribly) from disease, earthquake, flood, famine, and cyclones — not to mention murder and warfare. Only after some 96,000 years does Jewish history begin, and only after some 98,000 years does Christian “salvation” come. For all those thousands of years the Creator/Designer left human beings to suffer. Then, even after Judaism and Christianity arrive, the suffering continues almost unabated. In addition, these poor human beings are badly designed. They have developed too much adrenaline, and the frontal lobes of their brains are too small. All these together leave humans in a bleak condition in a bleak world, and with very little hope. Who is responsible for this bad design? Hitchens blames the Creator.
Benedict addresses these two points and many others. Benedict agrees that the condition of humans before the Jewish and Christian news of God’s intentions was as bleak as Hitchens says. The idea of progress was not present in consciousness. The idea had not yet been born that the Creator is a Person of goodness, reason, and friendship, especially disposed to those creatures He created free (as Jefferson noted). And that God wanted to invite humans into His friendship. The idea that each human is free in his individual conscience — not the conscience solely of city, tribe, or even family — had not been introduced. The idea that the human mind is proportioned to the world as it is, and capable, in the image of the Creator, of creating new inventions, discoveries, and means of progress in history, had not yet been grasped by the mind of humans.
Yet, Benedict notes, there is still more than this. Even the human capacity for invention and technological progress, we find, is not a consistent bearer of hope. Humans remain both free and also drawn to self-love, arrogance of power, irrational ambitions, and moral decadence (see Federalist
6). Thus, at any time even instruments of great good can be turned into instruments of unparalleled evil. Of this we had much evidence during the 20th century.
But humans need a reason to hope for justice, truth, and love. They need a reason to go on. In dire circumstances, this reason must be able to count on more than the human capacity to deliver. For the reality is that all human beings suffer from deficiencies and evils of all kinds. Yet the horrific evils that millions experienced in the last hundred years required more than logic, science, and crazy utopian ideas. Hitchens and others are free to accept or to reject the hope that Judaism and Christianity implant in the souls of many. The fact is that this Jewish and Christian hope, once it became the driving force of Mediterranean and European civilization, produced an unrivaled and enduring burst of optimism, inquiry, and stunning progress.
The atheism of the last two centuries, Benedict observes, is distinctive in its moralism. It chooses the pretense of being more moral than the Creator of all things. It holds that the Creator ought to have come up with a better design. They would have done it more brilliantly. Brave new world, and all.
Judaism and Christianity have the advantage of dealing with the world as it is. They take it with all its hurt and folly, stupidity and egotism, natural disasters and disasters by human hands. Both faiths prepare their daughters and sons to face a vale of tears, to meet much suffering equably, to keep their hopes unbroken no matter what, and to show courage worthy of the children of the True God. For both faiths, suffering is an irremovable fact of life. Nonetheless, suffering may be alleviated by tender care for the poor and the ill, and suffering can transform human beings from empty suits to practitioners of heroic service to others. Judaism and Christianity have given hundreds of millions of human beings–in the Socratic word — “chest.”