A New Atheist Comes to Town

Snap, crackle and pop! Or is it snap crackle and puff?  Last month I was present as British journalist Christopher Hitchens huffed and puffed in a tirade against religion.. Hitchens, as a leader of the new atheists brigade, was proclaiming his message and promoting his new book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

When Hitchens speaks he demonstrates the superb verbal skills of a quick and intelligent mind. Unfortunately, in this presentation the mediocre level of his arguments did not match the stylistic firepower. Here was an intellectual media star strangely ignorant of serious theological thought and the Christian tradition. He constructed a caricature of a horrid and generic “Religion,” and then proceeded to the attack.

Hitchens was also simplistic in his veneration of generic “Science.” I suspect that he may be innocent of the newest work in the philosophy of science, but for this discussion go to John F.Haught’s new book God and the New Atheism.  

There is no doubt however, that Christopher Hitchens passionately hates religion as he (mis)understands it.  He is not posing as the village atheist simply in order to sell books. Amidst the furious flow of indignant invective there were two revealing moments.

Abruptly Hitchens interjected a point I had noted before in an earlier piece of his. He described how “appalling” and “repugnant” he found the claim that someone else, i.e. Jesus Christ, ever should or ever could die for his sins and save him. No, no, he Christopher, and every other autonomous individual must alone take complete moral responsibility for his fate.

Hitchens shows revulsion at the very thought that he could receive a gift from God. Any idea of a mutual love relationship or communion with the Divine is to be rejected. This kind of proud refusal, or “Non Serviam,” always produces a fairly invincible obstacle to faith. Standing alone, the unbowed unbeliever rejects the Other, the More, the Ineffable One.

Unfortunately, proud independence often ends in an elite rejection of communion with one’s naïve and needy fellow humans. Hitchens gave a demonstration of arrogant contemptuousness in a mean dismissal of a hapless questioner. No fool he.      

But then in another revealing moment Hitchens suddenly began to assure us all that atheists were not reductionists, or without developed sensibilities. While humanity could and should forthwith dispense with God, we could never live without music. Music and art are deemed necessary as they bring experiences of transcendence. Yes, yes, as believers we agree, but is this Godless transcendence grounded on nothing?

The new atheists arrive at the old question. From where do joy, love, music, meaning and beauty arise? Inevitably anti-faith crusaders try to assert (falsely,) that science, reason and religion are in opposition, and then try to claim that aesthetics and religion are separate.

So to Christopher Hitchens we send this message approved by Emily Dickinson:

     “This World is not Conclusion.
      A Species stands beyond—
      Invisible, as Music—
      But positive, as Sound—

If this sparks no response, there are always the mysterious words of Hildegard of Bingen who says “God is Music.”

Sidney Callahan

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10 years ago
I'm no big fan of Hitchens' methods, but I do get sick of hearing critics say that he must be completely oblivious to modern theological thought. As if explaining some convoluted theory of how the trinity probably works or the details of how it's ok for homosexuals to be homosexuals as long as they don't behave like homosexuals is going to convert him! I can't speak for the Four Horsemen or other atheists, but I suspect they see theology for what it is - an entire school of thought dedicated turning the ludacris stories and questionable teachings that make up the bedrock of Christianity into something that makes some kind of sense. I find it curious that theologians would have such a problem with the new atheists considering they share a common view of the bible: as it was written, the book just doesn't add up. The only difference is that while men like Hitchens see the absurdity as a reason to doubt it's divine heritage, theologians will spend their whole lives inventing explanations for it with no basis whatsoever beyond the unyielding belief that, one way or another, the bible can't be wrong. I don't want to come off as anti-religion here; I just find theology to be the unduly respected practice of making stuff up.
10 years ago
When Christians think about God, they must think of the man Jesus. Jesus was humble, self-giving, non-coercive, unobtrusive and promised love. See what theologian John Haught says about God and us and creation: http://meaningoflife.tv/transcript.php?speaker=haught
10 years ago
When Hitchens's book ''God is Not Great'' first came out, he was a guest with Newsweek’s Jon Meachem on a CNBC show hosted by Tim Russert. Both guests were pitching their new books. (Meachem’s was “American Gospel.”) I was caught off guard when Hitchens told Russert that at his wife’s urging, Hitchens had agreed to his children’s baptisms in the Greek Orthodox Church. When Russert asked why Hitchens had agreed, he responded with something to the effect of “why wouldn’t I agree to a salvation insurance policy for my kids?” Perhaps he was just applying Pascal’s Wager to the situation, but what was most striking to me was not his consent to the baptisms, but his theologically-deficient belief that baptism, in and of itself, provides a guarantee of salvation.
10 years ago
In regards to non-believers, I hope I can always keep in mind what Cardinal Anastasius Ballestero OCD says, "We must not forget that if we are among the believers, it is simply because God has willed it so and gratuitously. Let us give Him our gratitude for having always taken the initiative in our faith. What pity we must have for unbelievers! Who can understand the plight of souls that do not believe.? Who can venture to pass judgment on them?" P.5 The Theological Virtues in the Spiritual Life; 3rd printing 1982, Darlington Carmel
10 years ago
I think the author missed Mr. Hitchens' point about someone - anyone suffering for his sins. Mr. Hichens has a moral code to do no harm. And along with that is to detest any harm being done to anyone for any reason. He does not want anyone to come in harms way - even if the outcome is to save him.
10 years ago
People who love and are familiar with Mozart's music would understand John Updike's forward to theologian Karl Barth's book Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 'Above all, it is the *dialectical* character of Mozart's music that Barth admires. In this music, everything comes to expression: 'heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, the Virgin Mary and the demons'. Mozart simply *contains* and *includes* all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of 'balance' or 'indifference' – it is 'a glorious upsetting of the balance, a *turning* in which the light rises and the shadows fall …,in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present No.' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcly8-RGhgw&feature=related


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