Sympathy for the Devil
Is it an open question still whether Christopher Hitchens deliberately
misrepresents his Christian neighbors, or does he simply not understand?
Is it possible that Christopher Hitchens, who grew up in the mother country
of a disintegrating empire, actually did hear, in his youth, people say
'Religion is a good thing'? Does he seriously believe this is the kind
of thing 'religious' people are likely to say in defense of their faith?
Surely no; but wait -- President Eisenhower did say something like that,
if memory serves, and President George W. Bush used to say things like
that all the time. Imagine if somebody had no access to religious talk,
except through politicians. It may be that he is genuinely surprised that
no one in the evangelical fold wants to argue the point. Of course no Bible-believer
will defend 'religion' as such; the religion of Canaan, with its practice
of child sacrifice, an offense against God, was the very reason the land
spewed those people out. The global defense of 'religion,' any religion,
whether Baal-worship or Canaanite child-sacrifice or Wednesday night prayer
meeting, cannot be built upon the Bible, which plainly teaches that some
of the very worst things people do are 'religious.'
But perhaps the British educational system did so teach. It may be that
the one-time colonial masters of the world thought the way to hang on was
through flattery. Perhaps they thought if they said, 'Hinduism is good,
Christianity is good,' the Indians would not spew them out of the land.
But they did anyway, and no doubt they are not sorry they did when they
see people like Christopher Hitchens let loose on the world. Perhaps the
problem here is just parochialism; this stranger in a strange land does
not know what his neighbors believe and lacks sufficient interest to find out.
Is it conceivable that any mass-circulation magazine would offer column space to an author who explains to his credulous audience bizarre, and imaginary, Jewish sexual practices? This kind of thing has a history, and it's not a pretty one. He used to be the darling of the right wing, but it is hard to imagine even they still have any use for him. Where is the common thread in this author's zigs and zags, from Trotskyism to Neoconservatism and then back the other way, like a pin-ball bouncing off the sides of the machine?
But wait: wasn't President Reagan's 'three-legged stool' an odd agglomeration
from the start? The war party joined hands with the wealthy. The wealthy
at that time were an aggrieved party who wanted their then-ruinous tax
rates reduced, because after all the U.S. Constitution forbids involuntary
servitude. These first two were not natural allies, because there's nothing
costlier a State can do than wage war; Presidents Roosevelt and Truman
had left the country with confiscatory tax rates in the upper brackets
for that very reason. If you lower taxes at the same time you increase
defense spending, the deficit will balloon. And balloon it did! These two
oddly matched hand-holders then joined hands with the social conservatives,
who brought numbers and voting strength into the mix. The deal looked very
much that the social conservatives should vote,— that was their function,--
and then be quiet. Nothing was ever done on their issues, abortion and
gay marriage, beyond the symbolic. Did the other pro-war and economic conservatives
always share Christopher Hitchens' disdain for this most stout, stalwart
and electorally potent leg of the stool, without which they never would
have come to power and never could have invaded Iraq? Perhaps he isn't
the one who changed, rather certain useful idiots discovered their place.
On the plus side of the ledger:
- At times he displays genuine curiosity; he seems willing to learn about
the world, and even capable.
- He writes well.
Where he goes from here is anyone's guess. He fastens like a tick on the
pant-leg of particular individuals whom he then vilifies and demonizes.
If the target of his latest hit piece is President Clinton, the right loves
him. Next comes Mother Theresa, whom he hates with a passion. Then it's
Sarah Palin...but wait a minute, isn't this where we came in? What happened
to his sponsorship of the invasion of Iraq? Has he no constant principles
which personal hatred cannot overcome? A lot of people ought to be ashamed
they ever made common cause with him. After all, he is really far more
consistent than his fans of the day. He is a hard-core, atheist, hater. He
hates Muslims, so he delights in the thought large numbers of them are
going to die; thus his support for the war against Iraq. But he hates Christians,
too,— he hates all 'religious' people,— so he cannot endure the thought
of a Christian like Sarah Palin holding high public office. He shares with
his fellow atheist Sam Harris the profoundly un-American hope that no one
who belongs, or ever has belonged, to a fundamentalist church will ever
hold public office. How long is it going to take these people until they
figure out democracy does not serve their purposes?
"And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together,
and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the
first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the
commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou
shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul,
and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
There is none other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31).
Christopher Hitchens has issued a challenge to believers to name any good thing anyone might do or say which an atheist can't do or say as well. Let us take this opportunity to restore all those ethical norms he has tossed out. Recall, he does not want us to love our neighbor as ourselves; he does not want us to purify our thoughts and desires. The reader will recall these demands set him to ranting about "North Korea." His animus against these commands follows from his conviction they are "impossible:"
"More important, it demands the impossible...One may be forcibly restrained
form wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people
from contemplating them is too much." (Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great,' p. 100).
To his mind, it is "immoral" to command what is "impossible,"
though nothing is impossible to God:
"There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral,
but positively immoral. And these faults and crimes are...in its original
precepts. These include...The imposition of impossible tasks and rules."
(Christopher Hitchens, 'god is not Great,' p. 205).
A more systematic thinker would hesitate to class as "immoral"
what his 'Great Emancipator' characterizes as the peak of moral culture:
"The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize
that we ought to control our thoughts, and 'not even in inmost thought
to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.' [Tennyson, Idylls of the King, p. 244.] Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, 'Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.'" [Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk. V, sect. 16.]
(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter IV).
But this author is a humorist who writes for the aptly named 'Vanity Fair.' Consistency, or even coherence, is not to be looked for.
Of the two commands that head Jesus' list, neither falls within the aspiration of the atheist who follows Christopher Hitchens. But what great treasures he's casting aside! Let us expand the circle back out to its full circumference; let us restore the commands of Jesus and Moses which he has banished, on grounds they are supposedly "impossible," and thus "tyrannical," and regain our full moral heritage.
Even within the diminished little circle of ethical demands which Christopher
Hitchens will allow us to retain, carved out from within the larger circle
of Christian moral teaching, what is missing, and what God's grace supplies
us with, is the means to obey. When Christopher Hitchens issues his challenge,
I am surprised no one answers 'sobriety.' It seems a little bit insolent,
after all, for a stumbling drunk to claim moral perfection. One must assume he does not want
to make himself a public laughing-stock. He does so because he is not free;
if he were free, he could do what he wants to do, not be the plaything
of forces beyond his control. The harvest the Holy Spirit produces in our lives is this:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness,
goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law."
Most of these things Christopher Hitchens does not count as desiderata, but God does. Bring it all back,
even the impossible things: "...but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:18).
Do not consent to the atheist shrinkage of the sphere of morality. By
issuing his challenge, he narrows the circle to ordinary civic virtue,
which is all that seems reasonable to ask of the atheist. But will this
even be retained? To 'cheat' and give the novice atheist, giddy with
the velocity of his just-begun moral descent, a clue to his final
destination, realize the civic virtues are likely to collapse down to
holding the 'right' political opinions. The atheist challenge trims the
moral drag-net down to a very small radius. Having lowered the bar to
eighteen inches, he then triumphantly announces he can clear it just as
easily as any pole-vaulter. But how much has been tossed aside? Ordinary sexual morality is
discarded, except for the one imperative, that you must not use
physical coercion. Even in that we see slippage; watching the
flood-gates press open after Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's fall,
does the entire sexual revolution appear as anything more than a rape
epidemic? The entire sphere of man's obligation to God has been
discarded, as limned in the first commandment, according to which
atheism is itself a crime. Man readily consents to this reduced
instruction set of morals, but God stands by the original demands:
"If the sinner could by his atheism destroy the God whom
he hates there were some sense, although much wickedness, in his
infidelity; but as denying the existence of fire does not prevent
its burning a man who is in it, so doubting the existence of God
will not stop the Judge of all the earth from destroying the rebel
who breaks his laws; nay, this atheism is a crime which much
provokes heaven, and will bring down terrible vengeance on the fool
who indulges it." (Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Kindle
The affirmative moral demands which God makes upon His creation
"Of the principal moral obligations in particular. . .Of
piety, or men's duty towards God. First, then; in respect of God,
the rule of righteousness is, that we keep up constantly in our
minds the highest possible honour, esteem, and veneration for him,
which must express itself in proper and respective influences upon
all our passions, and in the suitable direction of all our
actions;--that we worship and adore him, and him alone, as the only
supreme author, preserver, and governor of all things;--that we
employ our whole being, and all our powers and faculties in his
service, and for his glory. . ."
(Samuel Clarke. A Discourse
Concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion, A
Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God (Kindle
Locations 2640-2643). Kindle Edition.)
This whole idea of affirmative, positive rather than negative, moral obligations seems to be problematical to the atheist.
One of Hitchens' 'Four Horsemen' colleagues, the arrogant druggie Sam Harris, cannot
see any difference between the positive form of the Golden Rule (Do
unto others. . .) and the negative (Do not do unto others. . .). The
one injunction is commonly heard from pagan moralists, the other is more
distinctive to Christianity. Can you guess which? This brings us
back to where we came in. If you scold an addict or alcoholic,— if you are the sort of troglodyte
who has not heard one must offer to such persons nothing other
than praise, admiration and sympathy,— 'Why are you wasting
your life in this disgraceful manner?' they will reply, 'I'm not
harming anyone but myself.' In some cases this is flat-out untrue:
they are making life a living hell for a spouse, child, or a
long-suffering employer,— but in other cases they have
succeeded in socially isolating themselves to the point where indeed
no one on earth knows or cares what they do, certainly not the other
residents of their single room occupancy hotel. This still
isn't good enough for the Christian moralist, who expects them to
contribute something positive, to build a life redolent of
graciousness and dignity. Merely failing to harm others doesn't make
the grade. When the atheists begin to moralize, do not fail to
notice what is being lopped off; it is a whole civilized world.
Hitchens' challenge, as a practical matter, boils down to, 'Why
isn't a habitual drunkard as good as anybody else.' Before hastening
to reassure in a matter of obvious importance to him, people should
stop to reflect, and be careful to give the right answer.
Hell: Why accept it, when you can write a letter of protest?: