Oh, to be the postman delivering to Christopher Hitchens this week.
If I were, neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night could keep me from rummaging through his mail.
Do his friends send him Christmas cards? Do his enemies? Do they choose Madonna and Child stamps, or just that silly “Holiday Knit” teddy bear? Does he, the year’s most celebrated atheist, inspire the delivery of a pile of brown-paper packages containing nothing fragile, liquid, perishable, or more potentially hazardous than a poorly wrapped figgy pudding?
Potentially hazardous — now there’s a fine phrase to apply to Hitchens’s latest work. He is, for me, a chieftain in an ever diminishing tribe: wordsmiths so elegant and fresh that they can nudge me to embrace a viewpoint I detest, at least for as long as it takes to read 1200 words. But it’s one thing to be seduced by artfully arranged verbs and emerge from the experience smiling, disheveled and newly convinced that the Iraq invasion was a splendid idea that bears repeating. It’s another to close a book and discover your personal theory of the universe unalterably dissolved.
Such was the risk I assumed when I read god is not Great earlier this year. I approached it with a quiver of trepidation, not unlike the feeling you get when you and your five-year-old walk past the Wal-Mart greeter, who happens to be a dwarf. You just know that something horrible is about to be said, but you are helpless to stop it and can only put your head down, walk faster, and pray.
But, as it turns out, random encounters with dwarves are more unsettling than Hitchens’s merry assault on my faith. A hardy thing, it survived not only Hitchens, but Sam Harris and Dan Brown, and odds are, it will endure for another Yuletide season despite Mike Huckabee.
I am a Roman Catholic, but I’ve dabbled in enough evangelical Protestantism to have Phil Keaggy on my iPod and to know that believers aren’t supposed to read angry screeds by atheists who claim validation in every chalice of grape Kool-Aid, let alone enrich them by buying their books. But there are, living among us, people who believe in capitalism, skeptical inquiry, and an omnipotent being who won’t hurl plagues upon us if we fail to capitalize his (or her) name.
This is a failing of Hitchcraft. The people most likely to read him — say, those who would recognize him in airports — aren’t the rank-and-file pew warmers who lead unexamined lives and recite unexamined creeds each Sunday. Yet, he rails against the sins of organized religion (got that), hypocritical leaders (what’s new?), and nonsensical doctrines (yeah, yeah, yeah) without adequately addressing the unassailable impulse that motivates most of us who believe. Hitchens says he lacks the capacity for belief. Fine. But there are far more of us who lack the capacity for unbelief, even in a year in which atheism tops the trendy lists of what is “in.”
In its October analysis of “the God spot,” Scientific American Mind reduced the religious impulse to electrochemical reactions in the brain. Like a taste for broccoli, the writer posited, belief in the Buddha, or Zeus, or a whimpering God-child in a barn, has a physical cause — but not because the thing believed is true and honestly intuited, but because the believer’s temporal (ah, the irony) lobe is suitably wired for pleasurable sensations that accompany belief. Canadian researchers are toiling away on a “God helmet” to induce religious feeling in people like Karl Rove, who, when pressed about where he spends Sunday mornings, is said to politely respond, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”
Rove has the courtesy to imply, at least publicly, that the failing is his own. To Hitchens, believers are fools, spectacularly so at this time of year. Those silly Christians — such spazzes, with their historically incorrect Sears nativity sets and their pagan trees. A moving star! A chorus of angels! A virgin birth! Couldn’t this Jesus have just sprung from a forehead?
It’s easy for anyone with one part brain and two parts wit to puncture an incandescent bubble of faith. Sometimes, everyday life does the same. It was on a Delta jet somewhere above North Carolina that I first doubted everything I’d learned in catechism. Peering through clouds, those swirling puffs of fog that our ancestors thought concealed Heaven; looking down at the specks of cars and homes and skyscrapers writ small, one grasps with alarming clarity the idea of personal insignificance. In the clouds, a vision of a personal God retreats as quickly as the oxygen supply.
But then, you land. And it isn’t long before God creeps back in. Faith cracks, it mends, it matures. It takes in new information and adjusts. Like a GPS navigator, it recalculates constantly, sometimes a little too often, sometimes not often enough.
Or, is it just that damned temporal lobe acting up again? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s not my circuit board that’s misfiring, but Hitchens’s; there appear to be more of my kind than his. Usually, normalcy is something to be desired; not in the skeptic’s world.
But for those of us who don’t need a God Helmet, who intuit a Presence all on our own, what Hitchens writes doesn’t matter. Here is a man who admits he has no faith, nor capacity for it, but presumes to write volumes on the topic. Meanwhile, holly-sprigged rubes like me welcome Christmas and its admittedly pagan customs because we find in it, amid the carol-singing and present-wrapping and eggnog-swilling, little bursts of joy as inexplicable as a black hole, or a massive wet planet skipping through space.
So, Merry Christmas, Mr. Hitchens. I wish for you peace, joy, and my grandmother’s whipped-cream cake. It’s a massive confection: three layers big as hubcaps, slathered in whipped cream and, inexplicably, elderberry jelly, which isn’t easy to find. Like Christmas, it’s a combination of decadence and simplicity, a generations-old custom that is equally unimportant (after all, it’s just a dessert) yet enormously draped in significance. We all pick our poison, eh? This one suits me just fine.
— Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a writer in the suburbs of Boston and an NRO contributor. Her website is jennifergraham.com.