Saturday, December 17, 2011

Concerning Christopher Hitchen's Atheism

I like atheists. Well, that's not quite accurate, but it is an easy and short way to begin this post. I can't really say I like all atheists, anymore than I like all humans, so perhaps what I should say is that I know many atheists and like them.

In point of fact, oftentimes as a Lutheran Christian I identify as much or more with the atheists I know than with other Christians. This is likely due to being a "beleaguered" minority religious tradition in the U.S. context. Being an atheist in our culture is like being a vegetarian. It is bound to eventuate many somewhat uncomfortable conversations.

Specifically regarding Hitchen's atheism, I must admit I have often chafed under the stridency of it. It's not  easy when the world's "fifth top public intellectual" goes after your bread and butter and publishes a book titled God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  [although I can't help but note here that it makes things immensely easier that Lutherans tend towards a "religionless Christianity," at least theologically speaking, that offers an end run around Hitchen's complaint; in other words, we have much to learn from, and we share much with, his form of religious skepticism]

Remember 2008, when Hitchen's book went to the bestseller list, as did Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion? Any pastor or theologian I knew with an an ounce of intellectual passion and fierceness wanted to write a screed in response. Many of us were pleased when such responses were forthcoming. I read two, David Bentley Hart's empassioned Atheist Delusions, and Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, a unique attack on the duo (he humorously called the two of them together "Ditchkins"), unique because Eagleton himself is also a kind of atheist (of the neo-Marxist variety), so was criticizing the form of argumentation itself from within the tradition.

Essentially, you could boil the critique down to this. That Hitchens and Dawkins, though thoughtful and provocative, do not match the rigor and power of Nietzsche, so we ought to read Nietzsche instead, since he does not stand to benefit monetarily from our reading him. Eagleton added something about the essentially conservative nature of the new atheism. Hart criticized their lack of knowledge of the engagement with atheism intrinsic to the Christian tradition itself. At least, those were my take-away lessons. They both said much more, and comported themselves wonderfully.

If you have the time, reading these four books (Hitchens, then Dawkins, then Hart, then Eagleton) would pretty much get you up to speed on the new atheist conversation, and much more.

So generally speaking, I find myself critical of "evangelical" atheists. However, I realize how hypocritical my stance is, since I myself am "evangelical" in the sense of wishing to share the good news of the tradition I hold to--the way of Christ.

Why should I prematurely judge Hitchens for wanting to share his "good news"? That's a good question.

I find myself warmly sympathetic to your average work-a-day atheist, those folks who have come to the conclusion that there simply is no god, and in our religious context, spend much of their lives either having to hide their position or defend it against highly vocal religious critics. Some atheists I know personally are among the best humans I know personally. The fact that atheism is often associated with lack of moral character is a travesty, and obviously contrary to fact.

I'm reminded of a quote I read recently in a lecture on the importance of the religious faith of the other for my own. The quote, "I don't want to be a part of your eschatology." I can imagine Hitchens empathizing with that quote, even as he might find something witty and acerbic to say about it. The issue is that so many Christians, hearing of his death, are inclined to say something like, "Too bad he never learned the ultimate truth." However, that is to not respect the internal integrity of what Hitchens was about, and who he was.

Much better, even if you are a Christian, is to honor who he was in this world, as the man he was himself. The dude could write. He was hilarious. He was incredibly honest. In fact, although I chafed under the stridency of his atheism, I benefited from the honesty of it. It forced me to learn how to engage that position forthrightly and boldly.

He "burned the candle and both ends, and it gave a lovely light." This, a quote from his most recent (and perhaps magnum opus) Arguably: Essays, might be a better and more faithful approach to commenting on him.

I think it is fair to offer this blog memorial to Hitchens on the topic of his atheism, since he made his own atheism a topic. But to actually honor him, it also requires we read the breadth of what he thought about, and how he wrote. If anyone wants to send this blogger a Christmas present, his recent doorstop of a book would be welcome.

And in these days, our thoughts go out to Christopher Hitchen's family and friends as they mourn his loss, and we give thanks for his life and thought.


  1. Anonymous4:10 PM

    This atheist appreciates your comments. Thanks for pointing out that we all can do good works and live a moral life. May we all work together to improve the world. Peace on Earth!

    John Russell

  2. John, thank you for reading. I'm glad it is well-received. Peace indeed.

  3. Wonderful post! Thanks, Clint. Christians do not have a corner on the market when it comes to morals or compassion. Yet many of us assume this is true and use it as an arguing point in favor of religion - an extremely weak argument to say the least. Many of the college students I teach on a daily basis consider themselves to be either atheist or agnostic, depending on the day. They are incredibly compassionate and socially engaged and good, critical thinkers deeply invested in the liberal arts. I would also say that – on a daily basis – I hear them say things that sound as though they are hoping for the possibility of a God in some form – sort of a “Proleptic believer” in a strange sort of way. Sometimes I wonder if our young people leave the church to save their faith – if their agnostic/atheistic search for Something is a more faithful expression of faith than what the church provides.

  4. Jeremy, that's a great description and a great way to think about your students faith and journey. Thank you!

  5. Anonymous2:15 PM

    I've neglected your blog the past few weeks, and didn't realize it until I opened it just now. You always give me something to think about. On this topic, I can say this: My agnostic husband is a much better Christian than most Christians.

  6. Maybe I should change my sub-title for the blog to, "Giving people something to think about since 2002." :) And woot for those agnostics who remind us who we are supposed to be and often aren't.