The late Christopher Hitchens worked the last years of his life as a professional atheist, going from debate to debate to catechize devotees of his brand of fiery, witty godlessness.
Hitchens’ belief about the God he denied
There’s a curious element to Hitchens’ debate appearances and to his writings on the subject of atheism as being superior to religion. Christopher Hitchens believed in God.
The way we speak of a thing’s existence is different than the way we speak of something’s nonexistence. In a sense it is incoherent to say “x does not exist,” because we are still speaking of x as if it exists. So to say “God does not exist,” we are essentially saying that “the God who exists does not exist.”
Christopher Hitchens spewed his barbed witticisms broadly, but not to the end of defending materialism. It was all for the purpose of declaring that God does not exist. This manner of presentation has to first assume the existence of God, in order to repudiate Him. This is why one may be left with the impression, after reading Christopher Hitchens, that he in fact believed in God.
To say that he believed in God is not to say he liked God, however. Hitchens hated the God who is, and his hatred was manifested in his attempts to argue Him out of existence.
Burden of proof
Materialists should instead be saying there is nothing beyond material reality. Let them defend physical reality without a non-physical cause, if they can. It’s as if the materialists like Hitchens make their case upside down. Instead of saying nothing’s there, they say the thing that appears to be there is not actually there. They do not make an attempt to reconcile materialism with the contrary indications readily available to our sense impressions and our reason.
Hitchens had to have understood this. That would explain his insistence, in this book and elsewhere, that “Our [atheists’] belief is not a belief.” He means to say that atheism is belief in nothing, while religious belief is a belief in something. This is utter nonsense. An atheist’s belief in the absence of any supernatural reality is just as fundamental a belief as a theist’s in God. To convince others that there is no God, an atheist has a lot to overcome, starting with the astonishing fact of existence of anything.
But not if they can invoke the sleight of hand that shifts any burden of proof on this all-important question to theists, with atheist belief enjoying the presumption of validity. This idea that atheism is not a belief at all does not stand to reason, but it does serve the purpose of attempting to shift to theists the “burden of proof,” so that atheists don’t actually have to prove the coherency of their own position, and can instead just continue to attack the assertions of theists, without the darn pesky bother of having to defend their own point of view.
Officious religious adherents?
Hitchens complained loud and long that the religious will not leave others alone. But how is that? He evangelized for atheism as avidly as any religious believer does for religious belief. He certainly does not follow his own injunction in reverse, by leaving religious people alone. Although he argues explicitly only for “respect” for atheist belief, what his writings indicate is that he clearly wanted a society in which atheism is given pride of place. This is quite a bit more than mere “respect.”
Hitchens’ failed Christian education
Hitchens completely misunderstood fundamental Christian doctrine, despite the Christian teaching he had as a child, and this fundamental departure from correct understanding would go a long way toward explaining his antipathy. Like many who do not understand the character of God and therefore reject the possibility of His existence, Hitchens took Christian religion to hold that one “qualif[ies] for an eternity of bliss and repose” only if one “obey[s] the rules and commandments” prescribed by God. If that were the standard, we might as well give up now, every one of us. The message of Christianity is one of grace. Our obedience is a response, not a condition to His acceptance.
All religions the same, in Hitchens’ world
Hitchens equated all religions. He thought that the very existence of many religions was an argument for none of them being true. But it is just as much an argument for mankind’s inept seeking of the truth. All of the religions cannot simultaneously be true, obviously, because many (such as Christianity) explicitly reject that possibility. But it does not follow that none of them are true. Hitchens would throw out the pearl with the oyster shells.
Hitchens was unusually prone to wandering in his logic, often interrupting his own thought process to utter juvenile witticisms, and then failing to return to his point. One can nonetheless discern in the resulting hodgepodge of assertions a few key suppositions that underlie his rejection of God. One such is the notion that Christianity must not be true because its adherents are not more happy.
Certainly the Christian message is the gospel – “good news” – but it is good news because it provides hope in the midst of the pain of human failing. That human failing is universal. Acceptance of redemption doesn’t change the frailty of human nature. It just gives hope for when the (sometimes miserable) life in the body ends.
Hitchens’ lack of discernment of this central claim of Christianity is evident in his commentary on Christian reaction to the reality of Christ’s message: “Why does such a belief [in God] not make its adherents happy? It must seem to them [Christians] that they have come into possession of a marvelous secret, of the sort that they could cling to in moments of the most extreme adversity.” Hunh. Hard to know what to make of this, for anyone who has a passing familiarity with genuine, lived Christianity. Short answer: It does. And they do.
A variation on this theme, by Hitchens, demonstrates further his cardboard-cutout understanding of Christians. He further supposed that Christianity was false because its adherents adhere badly. Again, a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christians maintain to be true about people (we’re bad) and God (He’s good).
Hitchens’ convenient labeling
How could Hitchens have made such monumental mistakes, mischaracterizing an unseen, internal, and individual interaction with God, about which he knew nothing? Well in part, by taking at face value the labels we put on each other, while ignoring the real significance of what is being labelled. Those in a western country who are not Muslims or avowed materialists are “Christian,” in Hitchens’ imagining, regardless whether there is any real warrant for the label, other than worldly demographic categorization.
Let’s demonstrate this with a joke Hitchens re-told: at a checkpoint in Belfast, a guard stopped a man and asked the man his religion. The man replied that he was an atheist. The guard then inquired “Protestant or Catholic atheist?” Ha, ha. We’re to understand, from Hitchens, that this demonstrates “religiously inspired cruelty,” when it actually demonstrates the opposite: that the actual religious principles and the change of heart that should result from them have little to do with the conflict. Groups of people square off against others all the time, and often (except in the materialist-inspired cruelty of the mass genocides) invoke God to their side. People have taken God’s name in vain since before God commanded that we not do it. This doesn’t mean there is no God. Wide is the gate and broad is the road that Hitchens was on.
Hitchens’ paradigm ends up indicting the entire world, excluding only those smart enough, like him, to be materialists. This was his version of the tolerance that he accuses religious believers (all of them) as lacking. The whole non-materialist world is indicted because these are people who believe in some sort of supernatural reality, and that in turn affects their outlook on life, and some of those people go about doing bad things. Never mind that the bad things they do might be contrary to what their religious beliefs ought to inspire, and therefore are really driven by their worldly concerns. That is, by their materialism.
Hitchens flipped this around. To him, it all counted as religious-driven, just because those engaged in it purported to adhere to some religion, or were labelled by others accordingly. So any bad project that is touched in even this most indirect way by religion is religion-driven, and would not have occurred without religious motivation. This is quite sweeping. Perhaps it can be proven true by examining those bad projects touched only by Hitchens-style materialism. But wait. That would only leave the tender mercies of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler. Never mind.
Here was Hitchens the philosopher of metaphysics. God cannot be, because if God were the “first cause,” the next question goes begging: who or what created God? Hitchens would say that the existence of the question suggests the answer: man. But it doesn’t. The question just remains unanswered. Suppose God were only a figment of man’s imagination. Where did Hitchens come from? And his parents? And their predecessors? And all of tangible reality? Even in Hitchens’ universe, it all had to come from somewhere. Materialists leave the question dangling. It is a hard question, without imagining a Being powerful enough to in fact be the First Cause. Therefore, materialists say, there is no such Being. This is what counts among materialists as a refutation of the ontological proof of the existence of God. They leave us with an infinite regress, and reject the definitional component of the proof; the reason it is termed “ontological.” There had to be SOME first cause. Perhaps we little understand that first cause, but we can at least give it a name. Let’s call it God.
Hitchens didn’t know what “solipsism” meant. He used it as a synonym for selfishness. In fact, it means much more. It is the word for a paradigm (a “paradigm,” not a mere point of view) by which one places himself at the center of all that is – as the sole measure of reality. If selfishness is gravity, solipsism is that which exists beyond the event horizon of a black hole.
So when Hitchens wrote “human beings are naturally solipsistic,” we should read that as meaning only that human beings are naturally selfish. True enough. But Hitchens draws exactly the wrong inference from this phenomenon.
That we can identify solipsism at all, and our selfishness for what it is, argues for an outside view. We see ourselves realistically as selfish precisely because we are not fully solipsistic. We are able to recognize in ourselves that distasteful zealousness for self-interest. And further, to recognize that tendency as distasteful. Selfishness does not alone drive us to superstition, or to religion. Consciousness of selfishness does.
Our consciousness of our own selfishness derives from our ability to imagine an external point of view. From a point of view outside ourselves, we see ourselves as selfish. Whence does that external point of view come? The natural selfishness of man points to some consciousness outside of man. We may get it wrong and look to the stars or to augurs or to false religions, but we are right to look beyond mere materialism.
Somehow the materialists get this backwards, and conclude from man’s selfishness that there is nothing else out there. In this way, materialists back themselves ever closer to the black hole, instead of going forward to the One who calls them away from it.
Argument from design
Hitchens didn’t understand the point of the argument from design. He condescendingly dismissed design theory as having put the cart before the horse. Instead of a bird being equipped with wings in order to be called a bird, he argued, the bird as we know it came to exist as a result of selection and adaptation. Let’s pause to consider how this is a cart before the horse.
First of all, it was not the man-made taxonomy of “bird” for which the bird was designed. Design is inferred from the sophistication of non-biotic components into a living thing that is discernible from other living things, in form, function, and aesthetics.
But suppose, given the cart-before-horse analogy, Hitchens meant something else. Which is the horse, and which is the cart? Evolution theorists posit that environment precedes form. The horse is the environment, and the particular animal is the cart that proceeds from that environment. So Evolution resulted in a combination of features of animal selected to cause the animal to adapt – in the case of the bird, to avoid predators by taking to the air. So Hitchens would be arguing that the animal was not “designed,” with wings and so on, for the environment; but rather, that the environment in effect “designed” the bird.
The theory of Evolution has huge unbridgeable gaps, but we’re encouraged not to think about those now. Like so many other elements of materialist philosophy, we’re supposed to take it on the skewed materialist definition of “faith,” ironically enough. A debate on Evolution is a side show here. Let us not get lost on the philosophical argument that materialists make.
The design argument is not about how the bird came into being, but that the bird came into being. Even if it were true (though it isn’t) that the bird is a bird because Evolution made it one, it is still a bird. The factor of natural processes in its make-up would not take away the wonder of its design. The immediate precursor to a human being is the presence of sperm and egg at the same time and place, and that through the agency of an individual man and woman. “Natural” processes. But that does not negate the truth of design in the newly-formed human being, nor of the man and woman who begat the child. Evolution would not disprove the existence of God, even if it were true.
Evolution theorists have an upper hand in debate in one respect. It is presented as science, and therefore non-scientists are not quick to enter the discussion. They don’t speak the lingo. It appears to be a technical, scientific matter.
It is not, however. It is a matter of philosophy, not science. Non-scientists like Hitchens can and do weigh in on the subject. In doing so, however, they regularly set up Evolution as being the presumptive Right Answer, and anyone who disagrees is a fool. Creationists engage in “puerile tautology,” according to Hitchens.
By way of example, he cites the creationist criticism that evolution is comparable to a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard of parts and coming up with a jumbo jet. For Hitchens, this is an “ignorant creationist sneer” which smart people like him reveal to be “piffle.” How?
For starters, he says, there are no “parts” lying about to be picked up. But there are. Material reality has to be made of something. Every bird, fish, elephant, and man is composed of molecules, atoms, quarks, and so on. These are the “parts.”
Jumbo jets in a sense “evolve,” as Hitchens rightly notes, because they are constantly improved, with old designs and parts set aside, and new ones installed, so that each new jet is an improvement on the last. But this happens as a matter of the intelligent design of human beings, repeatedly inputting intelligence into the process. It is by no means generated spontaneously.
From there, Hitchens goes on to attempt to deal with the problem of irreducible complexity, dismissing it as a “joke.” It is a problem, however, for Evolution, and a scientific problem, at that. Materialists like Hitchens strive to overcome logic problems with their theory. The existence of those problems could mean that Evolution as a theory simply isn’t true, but it could also mean that the problems only present conundrums to which there is as yet no answer. Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that Evolution is not disproven just because there are elements to it as yet unexplained. Why would that same consideration not be given to creationism, particularly given that it holds that life as we know it came from a Creator who is ineffable and not by any stretch fully known?
A reading of Hitchens and other materialists reveals a similar pattern. Religion, instead of human nature, is tarred with all the evils one can identify in history, but it is never given the credit of having contributed any good. That cannot be. No person has ever done good for any other person, under the motivation of religion? Hitchens with his characteristic hyperbole says that religion poisons everything!
These materialists acknowledge the existence of good and evil in the abstract, though they might disagree significantly with Christians about what constitutes good, and what constitutes evil. Despite all this, they leave the origins of morality and immorality unexplained. They attack what Christians say is the source of morality, but offer no viable alternative.
Materialists point to immorality of Christians or people who claim to be Christians, as being a proof that their belief is made-up, and that there is no God. But then they won’t put the shoe on the other foot. For example, Hitchens wrote that “virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of—indeed is not even an argument for—the truth of his belief.” See how that works? Bad behavior by Christians means there is no God. Good behavior by Christians means nothing. Neat.