Faith and obedience, Pope Benedict XVI reminded Americans in his homily at Yankee Stadium in April, are “not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a stumbling block for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom.”
Some of the contemporaries to whom Benedict referred in his celebrated visit have gained a certain amount of fame in recent years in their propagation of what is broadly termed the “new atheism.” A motley assortment of pundits, philosophers and pop-culture commentators, they have directed particular ire toward the established Christian churches and their adherents. This issue of America includes five essays by noted scholars on the “new atheists” and their self-invented creeds. Each essay addresses the central concerns and propositions of the new atheism and also offers critiques of some of the arguments put forth by the more prominent standard-bearers for the atheist cause.
Foremost among those voices is the acerbic conservative and avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens, who after 9/11 also experienced a convenient conversion to American jingoism, less than a decade after he was denouncing American politicians as war criminals in his role as the enfant terrible of left-wing Anglo-American journalism. Despite his recent embrace of the glories of Western civilization, Hitchens continues to find no greater enemy than Christian believers, and several years ago delivered his personal coup de grace to Mother Teresa. “I wish there was a hell,” he said, “for [her] to go to.” This crowd, it seems, will not be known by their love.
The vitriol of Hitchens and his peers stands in remarkable contrast to the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI during his joyful visit to Washington and New York in April. Who among us was not moved at the serene happiness that emanated from Benedict, a supposedly shy and retiring man, every time he came into contact with members of the Catholic faithful? Did he or the hundreds of thousands who turned out to greet him give the impression that their faith had harmed their lives or hindered their human development? “The Gospel,” Benedict reminded us, “teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love.... True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in Him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life.”
In seeking alternate sources for that ultimate happiness, Hitchens and his ilk are reminiscent of a central character in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. In that novel, a priest on the run from an atheist regime in Mexico is finally captured by government soldiers. Late in the story, the lieutenant responsible for his capture has a conversation with the man he is planning to execute in order to deprive the local population of its last active priest. “You’re a danger,” the lieutenant tells him. “That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man.”
“Of course not,” the priest replies. “It’s God you’re up against.”
“No,” says the atheist, “I do not fight against a fiction.”
What, then, is that angry soldier fighting against? If God is a fiction, how does he explain his rage? Like his real-life counterparts today, he seeks not the death of God, but the extermination of belief. As such, he can only fight against believers, and his strategy devolves into violence against the faithful. No one would accuse today’s prominent atheists of such thuggery, but their rhetorical violence is there in spades for all to see: arguments based on scorn, ridicule and clever bon mots pitched to a media culture hopelessly enamored of the sound bite.
American Catholics heard much more than sound bites and catch phrases from Benedict XVI last month. No single phrase has characterized his visit, unless it is perhaps the congratulations of our commander in chief: “Awesome speech, Your Holiness.” After following the pope through a busy week of important ceremonies, discussions, meetings and liturgical celebrations, many took away an enduring memory of a man whose faith has brought him real joy, a joy he wishes to share with his fellow believers, the children of God.