Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Hitchens' Hubris

by Tom Piatak

Description

The following article is a review of the recent book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of the book is to turn people away from Christianity and God altogether by blaming all things wrong in the world on religion.

Larger Work

Chronicles

Pages

29 – 32

Publisher & Date

The Rockford Institute, Rockford, IL, October 2007

"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." — Psalm 14:1

In July 1941, a political prisoner escaped from Auschwitz. As punishment, ten other prisoners were chosen by the Nazis to be killed in a starvation bunker. One of these men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began lamenting what his death would mean for his wife and children. Upon hearing these cries, another prisoner, a Franciscan friar named Maksymilian Kolbe — who had run afoul of the Nazis after sheltering refugees, including hundreds of Jews, at his friary — volunteered to take Gajowniczek's place and was sent to the starvation bunker in his stead. In the bunker, Kolbe became the leader of those awaiting death, whom he was often seen consoling and leading in prayers and hymns. Two weeks later, only four of the men were still alive, and Kolbe alone was conscious. The Nazis killed them all; Kolbe was seen calmly giving his arm to the executioner who injected him with carbolic acid. The memory of Kolbe's courage and selflessness lived on in those who survived the Golgotha of Auschwitz, including Franciszek Gajowniczek, and Kolbe was canonized by John Paul II in 1982.

Christopher Hitchens alludes to Kolbe in his careless and dishonest polemic god [sic] is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens, though unable to bring himself to mention Kolbe by name, claims he was virtually the only Catholic hero of the holocaust and dismisses him as "a rather ambivalent priest who . . . had apparently behaved nobly in Auschwitz."

It is not entirely clear why Hitchens believes that Kolbe was only "apparently" heroic at Auschwitz. Perhaps he doubts the testimony of concentration-camp survivors. Maybe he objects to Kolbe because he was celibate and therefore "repulsive" to Hitchens. (So much for Michelangelo and Newton, Handel and Kant.) Hitchens may think Kolbe should have led his compatriots in discussions of Hitchens' own "prophetic moralist," Leon Trotsky, rather than in prayer. Perhaps the problem is Kolbe's ethnicity; after all, Hitchens wrote a column in January 1983 mocking the religious beliefs of Poles at a time the rest of the world was marveling at those beliefs and the way they animated the Poles' resistance to an atheistic dictatorship. Most likely, though, Hitchens' unreasoning hatred of religion simply blinds him to Kolbe's goodness, just as it causes him to ignore the fact that Kolbe's heroism was echoed by the 130 or so other Catholic martyrs of the holocaust so far beatified or canonized, and just as it repeatedly blinds him throughout this book to the role Christianity played in creating Western culture and continues to play in the lives of millions.

Although Hitchens' book is lively and well written, it is fatally marred by its many rhetorical evasions and falsehoods. Throughout the book, whatever Hitchens dislikes he blames on religion, and whatever he likes he credits to something else. A clergyman Hitchens admires, Martin Luther King, Jr., is dismissed as someone who was"[ i]n no real . . . sense . . . a Christian." By contrast, Hitchens blames the atheistic dictatorships that killed more people in the 20th century than had been deliberately killed by the state in all the preceding centuries on religion, holding up the Jesuit missions of Paraguay that, until their dissolution, protected the Indian tribes as the first successful instance of totalitarianism and quoting Orwell's remark that "A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy." What Hitchens ignores is that Christian Europe has produced very few theocracies, because the Church, following Her Founder, has always taught that men should "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." The political legacy of Christianity is thus one of law and liberty, not of unitary despotism and worship of the state. In Hitchens' strange mental universe, religion is to blame for slavery — a primordial human institution abolished in major part by religious men such as William Wilberforce — and the Rwandan genocide, where one Catholic ethnic group slaughtered a different Catholic ethnic group. Hitchens also repeats the communist-inspired lie that Pius XII was "pro-Nazi," citing as his sole authority a book by John Cornwell that has been so thoroughly discredited by serious historians that even its author no longer makes the claim.

Hitchens' dishonesty extends to his own past. He now claims that he was a "guarded admirer" of John Paul II, even though he wrote two columns lambasting John Paul after his death, describing him as "an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long," but generously suggesting that he would not face "eternal punishment" for his "errors and crimes" because there is no Hell. Interestingly, Hell is the Christian doctrine that seems to be most attractive to Hitchens. In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly about his book, Hitchens chose to repeat this bon mot about Mother Teresa that he first delivered on Irish radio: "I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to."

Neither this book nor Hitchens' crude attacks on the likes of Mother Teresa have dimmed the neo-conservatives' ardor for him. The reason is clear: As Peter Robinson wrote on National Review Online, "He may have trouble with God, but Hitch most certainly believes in the war on terror." Indeed. So Michael Novak calls Christopher Hitchens "a Treasure" in NRO's only review of Hitchens' atheist manifesto; former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has described the man who calls Mother Teresa a "bitch" as "intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind"; and Jamie Glazov, of David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine, described Hitchens' book as a "very profound and powerful read," a "valuable intellectual gift," and a "powerful moral and humanitarian statement." Establishment conservatives writing about Hitchens' book invariably couple whatever tepid criticisms they offer for Hitchens' blistering attack on the basis of Western civilization with sycophantic bleats about Hitchens' deep intellectual gifts, vast erudition, and sterling character. Thus does the "mainstream" right continue the process of subordinating everything that conservatives have traditionally believed in and fought for to the goal of rescuing the war in Iraq, a war that so far has claimed thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and devastated the ancient Christian community in Iraq — just as Chronicles warned it would.

Not that Hitchens is in the habit of shedding tears over devastated Christian communities. Although Hitchens claims in his book not to want to "prohibit" religion, he has long praised its forcible suppression, telling PBS that

One of Lenin's great achievements . . . is to create a secular Russia. The power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was an absolute warren of backwardness and evil and superstition, is probably never going to recover from what he did to it.

Of course, what Lenin did to Christianity in Russia was unleash murder and terror. Indeed, Hitchens told Radar in April that, if the Christian Right came to power in America, "It wouldn't last very long and would, I hope, lead to civil war, which they will lose, but for which it would be a great pleasure to take part." Even Jacques Berlinerblau, a nonbeliever reviewing Hitchens' book for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "can't but help detect a whiff of the old Marxist sulfur in the air." Hitchens still clings to his Marxist roots, and the urge to hurry History along — by gulags and firing squads, if necessary — is always there.

The effectiveness of Hitchens' book is also undermined by the large number of errors it contains, many so glaring that they will be picked up by even a casual reader with some knowledge of history and theology. The Gnostic gospels are not of the "same period and provenance" as the canonical Gospels but were written several decades later; the "synoptic" Gospels are not synonymous with the "canonical" Gospels; "Q" is an assumed source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but not for Mark and John; the process of deciding which books to include in the New Testament was not one in which "many a life was horribly lost"; "the Vulgate," which the Reformers were trying to get away from, is not the same as the vulgar tongue; Luther declared "Here I stand, I can do no other" at Worms, not Wittenberg; John Adams was not a slaveholder, nor was T.S. Eliot a Catholic; the amount of wood from relics of the True Cross would not, if gathered together, be sufficient to recreate the Cross, much less create a "thousand-foot cross"; Christians have never practiced animal sacrifice, nor did the Arian heresy teach that the Father and the Son were "two incarnations of the same person"; the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were promulgated in 1854 and 1950, not 1852 and 1951; the Lateran Treaty was signed seven years after Mussolini marched on Rome, not after he "had barely seized power"; and Maryland never prohibited Protestants from holding office. Given these errors (and many more), there is no reason to accept anything Hitchens writes on his own authority, and he offers no authority other than his own for most of what he writes.

Hitchens' errors extend even to fields in which he claims to be an expert. This self-professed admirer of Evelyn Waugh describes Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited as being "heir to an old Catholic nobility." In fact, Sebastian was the younger son, with little prospect of inheritance, and the Flytes became Catholic only when Lord Marchmain converted to marry his wife. The very paragraph following the one sentence Hitchens quotes from Brideshead begins: "Sebastian always heard his mass, which was ill-attended. Brideshead was not an old established centre of Catholicism." The humor in Hitchens' book is similarly unintentional, such as the amusement to be found in reading about Christianity's supposed obsession with sex in a book with page after page discoursing on such topics as the evil of virginity, the horror of circumcision, and "the hideous consequences of the masturbation taboo."

But what of Hitchens' major arguments? Is there a persuasive core buried beneath the errors and falsehoods? Hitchens himself admits there is not. The book eschews philosophical argument in favor of anecdote, a parade of horrible religious extremists for the reader to contemplate. But such argument does not prove that religion is false, or that God does not exist. As Hitchens acknowledges, "I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is thereby discredited." Exactly. The fact that some horrible things have been done in the name of religion, and that some repulsive men have professed religious belief, does not disprove the existence of God or show religion to be a malign force.

The main arguments that Hitchens offers against Christianity are that evolution explains the origin of life on earth, that portions of the Bible are not literally true, and that the four Gospels are not mathematical reproductions of one another. These arguments do not get Hitchens where he wants to go. Many eminent Christians have seen no contradiction between evolution and their belief. John Paul II stated that evolution was "more than a hypothesis," and Cardinal Newman wrote shortly after the publication of Darwin's work that "Mr. Darwin's theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and skill." Newman also echoed the Thomistic belief that reason and revelation are complementary, not antagonistic, in words all Christians should take to heart:

[I]f anything seems to be proved by astronomer, or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to any thing really revealed, but to something which has been confused with revelation.

And long before Newman or John Paul, such important figures as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome looked to the Old Testament not primarily for historical or scientific knowledge but to understand how it pointed the way to Christ. Indeed, Augustine speculated that different species of animals were not the result of separate miraculous acts of creation, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest, but the result of a process in which the conditions for life created by God gradually became operative.

Hitchens also fails even to mention, much less come to grips with, evidence pointing to the existence of God. He denigrates the analogy of unguided evolution to that of a whirlwind creating a jumbo jet out of the parts found in a junkyard as a "creationist sneer," neglecting to tell his readers that the analogy was made famous by Fred Hoyle, an astrophysicist, who calculated that the odds of certain key life-producing enzymes arising by chance alone were 10 to the negative 40,000th power. Hitchens does not discuss the fact, noted by Robin Collins, that "Almost everything about the basic structure of the universe . . . is balanced on a razor's edge for life to occur." As Collins notes, if the initial explosion of the Big Bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10 to the 60th power, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. If gravity had been stronger or weaker by one part in 10 to the 40th power, stars such as the sun could not exist. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy concludes,

Other things being equal, deliberate, intentional design would constitute a plausible explanation for a universe like ours existing against the odds and out of all the myriad life-precluding or life-hampering universes.

So striking is the suggestion of design that physicists wishing to avoid it have postulated that the known universe is but one of a multitude of universes, which raises problems of its own. As physicist Edward Harrison writes, "Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes, or design that requires only one." There is no question which choice William of Ockham, frequently invoked by Hitchens, would take.

Hitchens makes much of the fact that there are differences among the four Gospels. Yet the four Gospels are in substantial agreement on the central facts of Jesus' public ministry. And the differences that do exist are understandable and scarcely suggest that the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is unreliable. If four of Hitchens' friends each set about writing a brief biography of him decades after his death, based on their own memories or the memories of others who had known Hitchens, there would no doubt be differences among their accounts, reflecting the different perspectives and memories of the authors. These differences would not show that Hitchens did not exist, or that the biographies were fabrications or unreliable.

In fact, Hitchens inadvertently highlights the credibility of the Gospels. In his book, he recounts the story of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century false messiah who was given a choice of embracing Islam or facing death. Zevi embraced Islam, as "almost any ordinary mammal would have done." But Christ, when faced with a similar choice, embraced the Cross. So did a considerable number of those who had followed Him during His life. The logical explanation for why Jesus and His apostles did not do "what almost any ordinary mammal would have done" is that Jesus believed He was the Son of God, and His apostles came to share that belief. If the Resurrection were a hoax, someone in the know would have confessed to it to save his life. None of them did. Over time, this despised and persecuted sect became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire and then of Europe, eventually creating a civilization that gave rise to the greatest painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature the world has ever known. Indeed, many historians of science have concluded that it was the medieval scholastics who gave birth to science, and that the Western empirical scientific tradition could not have arisen apart from Christian belief in the reality of the physical world and the existence of natural laws, and the Christian denial of pantheism.

Hitchens writes that the early conquests of Islam "certainly conveyed an idea of being backed by a divine will." If Hitchens can entertain such thoughts about an alien civilization, why can't he believe that about the far more remarkable story of his own? Indeed, anyone who believes that "religion poisons everything" in the face of Michelangelo and Giotto, Bach and Handel, Chartres and St. Peter's is, as the Psalmist says of those who claim there is no God, a fool.

Hitchens also fails to come to grips with the enduring power of religion. Indeed, he seems to have no conception of how religion has provided meaning, consolation, and inspiration to the great majority of men throughout history, portraying religion solely as the breeding ground of fanatics. Hitchens pretends that there are equally efficacious sources of meaning, consolation, and inspiration, but he is unconvincing. He claims that, "As in all cases, the findings of science are far more awe-inspiring than the rantings of the godly." Is he serious? I doubt that even Hitchens would find reruns of Carl Sagan's Cosmos "far more awe-inspiring" than Michelangelo's vision of God creating man.

And what exactly is inspiring about what Hitchens claims to derive from science? Hitchens sees evolution as "callous and cruel . . . and capricious," human life as "random and contingent," and states that "earthly things are all that we have, or are ever going to have." Contrast those "awe-inspiring" statements with the vision offered by Benedict XVI (whom Hitchens has dismissed as a "completely undistinguished human being") in his inaugural homily as Pope: "[W]e are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary." Even if Benedict's vision were not true, there is little doubt that it would be more capable of inspiring men than the bleak vision offered by Hitchens.

That bleakness has consequences, even if Christopher Hitchens is unwilling to face them. Although he writes of the consolation provided by art, music, and literature, almost all the artists he mentions in his book were believers of one variety or other. This is hardly an accident: Men sharing Benedict's vision of the world, who see it as an orderly place reflecting God's glory, are likely to produce works of beauty. By contrast, men who believe that life is "random and contingent," the result of a process that was "callous and cruel . . . and capricious," are likely to produce, instead, such painting as Jackson Pollock's, such music as Arnold Schoenberg's, and such architecture as Le Corbusier's. As the American composer John Adams has said, "I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche's God did, and I believed it." In fact, Charles Murray, an agnostic, after his exhaustive study of human achievement, concluded that

it was the transmutation of [the classical] intellectual foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and that pushed European accomplishment so far ahead of all other cultures around the world.

The vision of the world offered by Hitchens is also far more likely to lead to moral nihilism than that offered by Benedict. If human life is as Hitchens describes it and "earthly things are all that we have, or are ever going to have," why shouldn't human beings emulate the "callous and cruel" process that created them, hang on to their "earthly goods," and look out for Number One? Studies of charitable giving in America have, in fact, consistently shown that those who share Benedict's views are far more likely to give time and money to charity than those who share Hitchens'. A recent study by the Barna Group revealed that religious Americans give seven times as much to charity on a per capita basis as nonreligious Americans do. The 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel is a more effective spur to charity than is Kant's categorical imperative, much less a belief that human life is nothing more than a biological accident. Indeed, although Hitchens does not admit it, widespread charity was unknown in the classical world; it is a legacy of Christianity. And there is no reason to suppose that it would survive and flourish in the atheistic culture Hitchens hopes to create.

Hitchens, for all his malice, is strangely naive: He imagines that we can gleefully tear out the taproot of our civilization and still continue to enjoy its fruits. With his book, he has found a ready audience for this belief among the over-schooled but undereducated types who congregate on our East and West coasts and are prepared to defer to anyone with an Oxbridge accent who can readily quote books he has heard of but never read. It is true that the triumph of atheism in the West need not necessarily produce what the triumph of atheism produced in Russia — mass murder and cultural devastation on a scale previously unimagined. But we already have before us cultural devastation of a different sort, the result of the very assault on faith — both faith in God and faith in our past — that Hitchens wants to accelerate: a culture centered on self-gratification, with comfort its highest aim; a high culture devoted to ugliness and degradation, and a mass culture marked by tawdriness and vulgarity; a loss of morals and a coarsening of manners; and the dismissal of notions of duty, self-sacrifice, and restraint as anachronisms, at best, and tools of oppression, at worst. As Waugh wrote, "It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis on which it rests." It is time to fortify the admittedly thin and tenuous roots still connecting us to Christendom, not to tear them up and hope for the best. No civilization worthy of the name has ever been defined by atheism; we are unlikely to create the first.


Tom Piatak writes from Cleveland, Ohio. An earlier version of this review appeared on Taki's Top Drawer.

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