Politics & Policy

Christopher Hitchens Is a Treasure

A good, useful atheist.

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:

Praise him.

– 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.”

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.

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



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