The Irrepressible Mr. Hitchens
The following is taken from “No One Sees God” and is a section of the book that deals with Michael Novak’s response to the criticisms of Christopher Hitchens.
Mr. Novak’s Introduction of Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, in some ways a national treasure for the United States, an unusually well-read, graceful, and delightful writer, often witty and even comedic, has opened his soul to an unusual degree. He predicts that his believer friends will be surprised by how harshly antireligious his true views actually are. Well, he has let fling poisonous invective against one of the most gentle, self-sacrificing, loving souls most of us have ever met, Mother Teresa. He has even called her a “whore.” That is about as gross as the jihadist expectation of seventy-two blue-eyed harlots in the martyr’s Paradise. And he now avows his hatred and enmity against “all that is called God.” I was sorry to see this. But it would be patronizing and unfair to Hitchens to take him at less than his word. Let us look into it more closely
Hitchens Four Objections To Religious Faith
The first irreducible objection he announces is that religious faith “wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.” At the age of thirteen, Hitchens might well have thought that. But nowadays Hitchens excuses naïve scientific errors and missteps (the phlogiston theory) of great scientists such as Newton, Priestley, and Franklin by kindly covering their nakedness: “Remember that we are examining the childhood of our species.” Is not religion also entitled to its childhood? Christians have also learned from earlier errors.
Hitchens is much too smart to mistake the book of Genesis for a contemporary account of string theory in an advanced text of physics. The largest of all Christian churches the Roman Catholic Church, leaves to science the task of figuring out description and theories of the material “origins of man and the cosmos.” In the Jewish tradition, Ray Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), among the most eminent Orthodox Talmudists of the twentieth century, taught that imitatio Dei requires believers to imitate God’s creativity particularly through intellectual inquiry and scientific practice. Ray Soloveitchik was among the key founders of Yeshiva University which has as its motto “Torah U’Madah,” in modern Hebrew “Torah and science.” The succinct story of the book of Genesis, and the theological affirmations that draw out its main lessons, emphasizes three points:
- All creation is suffused with intelligence, as a unified whole.
- All creation is, on the whole, good and worthy to be affirmed and loved.
- Its Creator is separate from creation, so that the latter is to be neither idolized nor perceived as under taboo; humans are intended to investigate it and come to understand it thoroughly, naming all things.
None of these three affirmations seems contrary to Hitchens’s own way of proceeding in regard to man and the cosmos. To refer to the natural world as “creation,” though, might cause him gastric pain.
His second irreducible objection to religious faith: “Because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism.” Really? The reader is likely to imagine that something important must be meant by “servility” and “solipsism.” But what have these to do with Dante, Shakespeare, Lord Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John E Kennedy Ronald Reagan, and the millions of other Christians who stand in their shadow and imitate from afir their boldness, capaciousness of character, wide range of vices and virtues, and zest for building a better world?
Hitchens’s third irreducible objection to religious faith: “That it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression.” I would have thought that the history of England gave witness to a great many. lusty Christians; the tales of Chaucer and the plays of Shakespeare ought to be enough on which to rest the case. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were not exactly prudes.
Personally, I am rather glad about the Jewish and Christian emphasis upon honoring the human body as sacred, a temple of the Creator. I am glad that this vision instructs Christians, in self-control, to channel their sexual acts within the bonds of marriage. These are, I would have thought, great civilizing and liberating injunctions. As Tocqueville shrewdly observes, where fidelity establishes trust in the bosom of the family, trust among citizens of the Republic is more natural.
“In Europe, almost all the disorders of society are born around the domestic hearth, not far from the nuptial bed. It is there that men conceive their scorn for natural bonds and permitted pleasures, their taste for disorder, the restiveness of heart, their instability of desires. Agitated by the tumultuous passions that have often troubled his own dwelling, the European submits only with difficulty to the legislative power of the state. ‘When, on leaving the agitations of the political world, the American returns to the bosom of his family, he immediately meets the image of order and peace. There all his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys innocent and tranquil; and as he arrives at happiness through regularity of life, he becomes habituated to regulating his opinions as well as his tastes without difficulty.”
For tiny Jerusalem, too, neighboring kingdoms to the east and north and south — the Persians, the Babylonians, the Africans — did not have such channeling for sexual polymorphism, and in their own excess fell civilizationally behind Jewish and later, Christian cultures. Even science and enlightenment depend on a certain self-control, even asceticism.
I can see how atheists might wish to experiment further afield and live under fewer sexual restraints than those just stated. God knows, I have sometimes wished I could. Moreover, the many stories of love triangles invented by and for Christian civilization during the past twelve hundred years (since the troubadours) dramatize the tensions that monogamy sets up in the human heart. How could they not? These are the fantasies that arise from sexual self-control. I find it unlikely that Hitchens believes self-control to be morally equivalent to repression.
In the same vein, Sam Harris also makes a crack about how ignoble it is of the so-called God to care “about something people do while naked.” As for gorillas and chimpanzees in the zoo, which Hitchens brings up in his opening pages, it is plain that the Creator does not care when they openly rub their genitals, or whether out in the open they mount a female or are mounted. Of human beings, it appears, he expects a little more self-control, romance, restraint, and mutual respect. As a matter of human dignity.
Actually, come to think of it, surveys of sexual behavior regularly show that secularists enjoy sex rather less than devout Christians do. It may be like the difference between relieving a biological urge and knowing that marital love is in harmony with “the Love that moves the Sun and all the Stars?’ The feminist writer Naomi Wolf published a fascinating essay several years ago noting the bruises that casual sex with multiple partners leaves upon the psyche; and the absence of a sense that a faithful love can last forever. The inherent symbol of two bodies coupling is unity of heart and soul, in which two become one. A great many sexual acts, in that light, are lies.
The enormous weight that a secularist culture places on sexual fulfillment is insupportable for one simple reason. Sexual intercourse is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in. Among the young, the weakening of cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit. It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced to the huddling of kittens in the darkness — not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of nothingness. Close your eyes and plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.
Hitchens’s fourth irreducible objection: “That religion is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.” Of course, it may be, but perhaps it is atheism that is based on wishful thinking. For some, atheism may be a defiant thrill and self-glorying attraction. With virtually no effort, one becomes a hero in one’s own eyes. And think of the burdens that slide off one’s shoulders just by becoming an atheist. It’s a helluva temptation.
There is one thing profoundly irritating about the atheist pose, however. Some atheists are among the most satirical, dismissive dogmatists one encounters anywhere in life, constantly ridiculing others, setting these others up for logical traps and hoots of laughter. And yet these dogmatists routinely boast, as Hitchens does:
And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers:
Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.
I am certain, having in admiration watched Hitchens in print for many years, that Hitchens does not really wish to be a dogmatist—he hates the breed—and does not think he is a dogmatist. Still, I would have thought that all men who in argument routinely ridicule their opponents extend the secret handshake of all dogmatists everywhere: Opponents are for mocking.
Dear, dear Mr. Hitchens. We have all experienced the dogmatism of those who claim to have none. And close-mindedness in regard to God does no honor to those who claim to live by free inquiry, open minds, constant questioning and ceaseless searching. In a word, Hitchen’s “four irreducible objections” don’t amount to much.
Hitchens Sees God the Watchmaker
Like many and religious polemicists, Hitchens suggests that believers in God imagine God as 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 the believer’s 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 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 — like a great novelist, and long before man arrived on earth –created a world of probability schemes and redundancies, of waste and profusion, of heavy buffeting and hardship. Blossoms fell to earth, turned to dust. Stars for millions of light-years brilliant in the far firmament suddenly burn out. Suppose that this God loved untended forests as well as architectural design, statistical schemes of order as much as classical logic. Suppose that this God loved the idea of a slowly developing, incomplete, imperfect history, most good things emerging from suffering. Such a world might be stunningly beautiful. The cross might fit its door like a key.
Suppose He desired a world of indetermination, with all its crisscrossing 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
The Gifts Of Judaism And Christianity
Judaism and Christianity considerably deepened their own resources with the moderating habits that they partly learned from pagan ethical systems — from Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics. In return, Judaism and Christianity infused into young and inexperienced Northern Europe a spark of the asceticism, self-denial, discipline, dedication to long years of study, and habits of honesty and limpid transparency that are necessary for sustained scientific work. Here was powerfully reinforced the conviction that everything in the universe, being the fruit of a single intelligence, is in principle understandable and worth all the arduous labor to try to grasp it. Here recent scholars such as Daniel Boorstin (The Creators) and David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations) have uncovered the Western conviction that it is the human vocation to be inventive and to help complete the evolving work of creation.
In this vein, Hitchens praises the efforts of two Princeton professors, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who for thirty years have traveled between campus and “the arduous conditions of the tiny island of Daphne Major” in the Galapagos Islands. “Their lives were harsh,” Hitchens notes, “but who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” With this quip, Hitchens dismisses a more central question. Who could wish that there had been no Jewish and Christian ascetics to inspire the Grants with two incandescent lessons? First, that there is intelligibility in all things, waiting to be discovered. That is, there is a fit between the universe created by God and the human mind created by God — they were made for each other. Second, the vocation of the inquiring mind requires patience, discipline, precise observation, honest reporting, and careful thinking that can withstand the objections of others and persuade even the dubious. The first of these lessons assures researchers in advance that their pain and suffering will be rewarded with new light into our world, and perhaps also into ourselves.
In our generation, Jurgen 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. By contrast Hitchens is quite a bit over-the-top in his hatred of Judaism/Christianity
If all we had to depend on were science, empiricism and our own inquiring minds, we could 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 living intelligence flashing out from 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 them 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.”
Hitchens may have been too quick in misinterpreting Einstein. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson uncovers Einstein’s objections to aggressive atheism:
“But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. “There are people who say there is no God:’ he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views?’ And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos;’ he explained. In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists;’ he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres?”
The Omnipotence And Omniscience Of God
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 descend like rain upon the just and the unjust alike. Hitchens makes one think of the rather amusing quatrain debunking omnipotence and omniscience summoned up by Richard Dawkins:
Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change His future mind?
A cute little quatrain. Yet it does have the defect of putting God in time as though He were just an ordinary Joe like the rest of us. In the classic formulation, “omniscience” and “omnipotence” characterize a being outside of time, unchanging, unchanged. Thus, God has no “future” mind, but only a present mind, in which all Time is present as if in simultaneity The god presented us by atheists, by contrast, is awfully anthropomorphic and fundamentalist. Unnecessarily so. 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 The Creator’s relation to His creation may not be at all what Dawkins and Hitchens project. It may be that of the Artist, or Novelist, who does not infringe upon the liberty of His living creations, even while testing them with difficulties, setbacks, and self-revealing choices.
For the atheist — for Hitchens — the problem of goodness, which his passionate conscience well exemplifies, may 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 often enough to be quite striking? Why is conscience innate?
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 would be 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 with being good. Some do seem to hate it when believers suggest that in the absence of faith, moral relativism prevails. Christopher Hitchens plainly (and in his case, rightly) resents it.
Besides, atheists of conscience have often placed their trust in very human faiths, in very human causes and system~ and utopian visions. Hitchens testifies to how deeply he sympathizes with this kind of atheist, as in his splendid tribute to Doris Lessing on her receiving the 2007 Nobel Prize:
“For much of her life, the battle against apartheid and colonialism was the determining thing in Lessing’s life. She joined the Communist Party and married a German Communist exile (who was much later killed as the envoy of East Germany to Idi Amin’s hateful regime in Uganda), and if you ever want to read how it actually felt, and I mean truly felt, to believe in a Communist future with all your heart, her novels from that period will make it piercingly real for you.”
Communism was, of course, a “God that Failed.” Generation after generation such gods do arise — and disappear into the void. One should not overlook — should marvel all the more — at that lowly faith in the God who does not fail, but generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, is faithful to His people. Hitchens regards all that as “poison.” His choice.
Atheists Who Believe In An Intelligent Order
A book on American atheists some years back showed that well more than half of them, while calling themselves atheists, nonetheless believed in an intelligent order visible to them in the universe arid/or a life force running through every living thing from the blade of grass to the newborn child. Many thought the whole universe partook of some of the central attributes the ancients attributed to God, such as its mysterious pull toward goodness, justice, and beauty — qualities that are not found in their pure state on earth, but attract us onward by their own higher levels of perfection, like mountain peak rising above mountain peak as far as the eye can see.
The Two Great Commandments
Closer to the heart of the matter, does Hitchens feel bound by “the two Great Commandments that sum up the Law and the Prophets”? That is to say, does he “love God with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his mind”? The evidence of his book and all his interviews does not suggest that Hitchens loves God.
Further, does Hitchens love his neighbor as himself?
The evidence seems very strong that in a large range of cases, Hitchens does love his neighbor. His love may be shown by rather more statist and collectivist ways than many oi us have confidence in. Yet Hitchens shows that, by his own lights, solidarity with the weak and those who suffer is one of the rules by which he governs his life. On this score, Hitchens may well be more favorably judged on the Last Day than many of the baptized. This index is ranked especially high by Jews and Christians. The first epistle of Saint John insists that this is the only way by which a human can prove he loves God — if he has love for his neighbor.
Now I hate to ruin Hitchens’s remaining years on earth by bringing him the bad news — that he may well end up in heaven. He claims he would be bored. He imagines heaven to be a sentence to North Korea, under the worst combination of coerced adulation and a crushingly boring authoritarian leader, with no possibility of escape. Poor Hitchens, to suffer so from a truncated imagination.
There remains only one point on which I suspect (only suspect, not knowing nearly enough) that Hitchens does not measure up: in loving himself. In the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the most difficult part is often the “as yourself.” Self-love is common. Self-love dies, Saint Bernard told his monks, fifteen minutes after the self. But a good self-love, loving yourself as God loves you, loving yourself in honesty and full truthfulness, is very rare A great many human beings, I find, deeply underestimate how radiant with love God has created them, how good in His eyes they really are They are much too hard on themselves, insecure, and unsatisfied Usually, they cover this by putting others down. In his interviews and published reflections after his book tour, Hitchens reveals a little more about the state of his own soul. He tends to imagine God in the most awful terms. He calls God many vile names, including “capricious dictator?’ He accuses God of meanly, arbitrarily, and spitefully throwing confused people down into everlasting punishment for breaking some silly taboo. (Like a child hopping down the sidewalk: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”) He says that the God who created sex, of which the reader takes it Hitchens approves, walled it around with prohibitions: No, no, no, no! To abortion, homosexuality adultery fornication, masturbation — you name it, Hitchens avers, there is a prohibition against it.
Without the tutoring of Hitchens, a normal person might be forgiven for thinking that God’s point has been to get humans thinking of some other things beyond sex. Sex is very good; one may be certain God enjoyed the humor of its creation, its zones of delight embedded in organs of waste removal, its whole execution rather clumsy, and its uneven outcomes as between males and females seemingly unfair Nonetheless, this lopsided, comical activity preoccupies human beings, makes some obsess about it, and maintains a steady horniness in many more sets of breeches than one might imagine Still, look at all the guidebooks on the subject, the “adult” movies, the “candid” photos on the Internet, the self-help manuals. Pleasure in sex must be a bit harder to find, or to maintain, than one might have thought So much trouble to put up with on its behalf a pretty huge business, sex. And actually, all the evidence is that serious Jews and Christians report more satisfaction from sex than do non-believers.
Besides, without sex, there isn’t any future for the human race. When sex is suffused with a lifetime’s love, and permeated with friendship and loyalty it is a wondrous part of human life. Indeed, of cosmic life One imagines even the angels dancing, or howling with laughter, and with maybe a touch of envy. Every day is Springtime.