I was once given the telephone number of Christopher Hitchens. I considered inviting him to contribute to my faith discussion radio programme Unbelievable?, but I never dialled the number. I still regret not picking up the phone and asking him.
In his latter years, Hitchens was one of the chief architects of the new atheist movement, along with the other self-styled ‘Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse’: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.
If the others were perceived to bring with them the cultural capital of science and philosophy, Hitchens brought the party. He was an opinionated journalist of the liberal establishment with a quick wit and a sharp tongue (often loosened by a few glasses of whisky).
As a well-spoken English intellectual with the rhetorical ability to skewer his opponents in debate, the sceptical community in North America almost worshipped the ground he walked on. Yet Hitchens was also popular with his Christian opponents. After his death, tributes poured in from many of the former foes of ‘the Hitch’, as he was affectionately known. However fiery he was as he delivered his views on religion, he was eminently likeable in person.
Christopher Hitchens was a journalist for Vanity Fair and wrote numerous books including the autobiography Hitch-22 (Twelve). He died of oesophageal cancer in December 2011
POLEMICS AND POISON
In 2007, with new atheism as its zenith, Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Atlantic). A central work in the canon of popular atheism, it was a masterclass in polemical writing, cementing his self-description as an ‘anti-theist’.
What Hitchens wrote about the evils of religion was not so much a scholarly argument, but more a wave of righteous indignation that levelled everything in its path. The barbs were not just reserved for Christianity; Islam, Judaism and Eastern religions were all included in the roll call of blame.
After listing the moral failings of various religious groups and practices, Hitchens offered three conclusions: ‘The first is that religion and the churches are manufactured, and that this salient fact is too obvious to ignore. The second is that ethics and morality are quite independent of faith and cannot be derived from it. The third is that religion is – because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs – not just amoral, but immoral.’
In doing so, Hitchens summed up the mantras of the new atheism: that ‘faith is a fairy tale’, that it is possible to be ‘good without God’ and that religion is not just false, but evil.
GOOD WITHOUT GOD
In God is Not Great, Hitchens wrote: ‘Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.
The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? ‘The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply.’
Hitchens claimed he never received an adequate reply. But if the anti-theist was ever guilty of a false dichotomy, perhaps it is most obvious here. In Christianity, at least, morality has never been the sole preserve of the religious. Perhaps we do need to be reminded that believing in God doesn’t necessarily make one more moral. It can, indeed, do the opposite. Then again, Jesus said this in his sermons.
It’s easy to attack religion; after all, there are so many things religious people have done wrong. But the deeper question (which was never answered by Hitchens) is where the moral compulsion upon anyone – atheist or believer – comes from in a godless universe.
"IT’S EASY TO ATTACK RELIGION; THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS RELIGIOUS PEOPLE HAVE DONE WRONG"
LAYING THE BLAME AT RELIGION’S DOOR
Hitchens writes: ‘Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.’
But what about the atheistic regimes that were responsible for mass genocide and 21st century warfare? Doesn’t atheism also have blood on its hands? Hitchens’ manoeuvre here was to separate atheism from the actions of its worst proponents. Stalin’s atheism was incidental to his politics, or so the theory goes.
In the case of an eccentric atheist dictator such as Kim Jong-Il, Hitchens argued that his personality cult was as religious in character as any fanatical sect. Indeed, the North Korean despot was a favourite point of comparison.
Hitchens claimed that believing in God was equivalent to life in an eternal totalitarian state: ‘It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea.’
RELIGION IS NOT GREAT
Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2010 and died on 15th December 2011, aged 62. As far as we know, he remained convinced that there was no God and confident that he would shake his fist at him in defiance if it turned out there was.
But the real target of his best-selling book was never God. It was always religion. Here, Christians may have little cause to quarrel with Hitchens. No believer has ever claimed that religion alone is great.
Yet for all his angry rhetoric, Hitchens never quite felt able to dismiss religion entirely. He once described the incredulity with which Dawkins greeted his admission that, if he had the chance to convince every human of atheism, he wouldn’t do it. Hitchens couldn’t exactly say why not. Perhaps, in the end, the tapestry of life was more alluring in a world in which he was still able to disagree with someone.
IS RELIGION THE MAIN CAUSE OF WAR AS SOME CRITICS CLAIM?
Not according to research by Bradford University:
1 Only 10% of all wars in the 20th and 21st century have had a clear religious motivation. Even Arab-Israeli wars were judged to be primarily nationalistic, not religious.
2 The report states that in the 20th century, ‘atheistic totalitarian states (Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China) have perpetrated more mass murder than any state dominated by a religious faith’.
3 The report noted the positive role of religion in pressing for non-violent resolution of conflicts and that ‘very few, if any, wars in the past 100 years have been purely religiously motivated wars’.
Source: God & War: An Audit and an Explanation (2003)
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