Lament for an Atheist (Part II)

or How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God

I’m a longtime admirer of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote numerous books plus many columns for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. I share his admiration for George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens once described his antitheistic approach as “the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it.”

Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great is not so much an argument against the existence of God as a caustic indictment of organized religion. Here’s a representative passage:

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. … Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean it “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment. This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses and to use their half-baked celestial knowledge to terrify the ignorant. It stretches from the epistles of Saint Paul… through the deranged fantasies of the book of Revelation … to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series.

Hitchens blames religion for misrepresenting the origin of humanity and the cosmos; for telling people they are “lowly sinners” (destroying their self-esteem); for telling them their Creator loves them (inflating their self-importance); for causing “dangerous sexual repression;” for promoting wishful, magical thinking; for killing millions of people through holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms, and terror attacks; for revering religious texts that are riddled, he says, with “contradictions and illiteracies;” for making claims of miracles and doctrines of heaven and hell based on myths; and for failing to make religious people behave virtuously.

He concludes that the human race needs a new Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason like that of 18th century Europe and America, when Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson shaped the science, culture, and government of the Western world. Hitchens believes that a new 21st century Enlightenment is not just for intellectuals, but is “within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.”

By attacking organized religion, Hitchens (whose given name, Christopher, means “Christ-bearer”) ironically aligns himself with another caustic critic of institutional religion, Jesus of Nazareth. Read through the four gospels, and you find the Nazarene blasting organized religion at every turn. He breaks the Sabbath, thunders against the corrupt religious bosses, eludes their attempts to entrap him, tells parables that plainly condemn them, openly blasts them as frauds and hypocrites, and exposes their corruption in the temple courts. Jesus would likely find a lot to agree with in Hitchens’ book.

In 2007, when I heard that God Is Not Great would soon be released, I was eager to see what kinds of arguments Hitchens would level against the scientific case for God (see my earlier posts on the cosmological case for God here and here). Upon opening my copy of Hitchens’ book, however, I was astonished to find that Hitchens completely ignored the cosmological evidence.

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

In my newest book, God and Soul, I present the cosmological evidence for the existence of God—the evidence that Hitchens oddly ignores. To me, the evidence is convincing, even overwhelming. I’ve often asked myself: If the evidence is as persuasive as I think it is, why are so many atheists unconvinced? I can’t escape the conclusion that most atheists, including Hitchens, simply haven’t gotten the memo.

They really don’t know.

Please don’t take my word for it. Read Hitchens’ book. And while you’re at it, read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Compare their case for atheism alongside the case I present in God and Soul. Then you tell me who has presented the more intellectually honest case—the New Atheists or God and Soul. If you make that comparison, you’ll find that Dawkins and Dennett don’t present the evidence accurately—and that Harris and Hitchens don’t present it at all.

I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens ignored the cosmological case for God because he was unaware of it—or if he knew that it presented a deadly minefield for his atheist beliefs. What I do know for sure is that no one can claim to be a serious, intellectually honest, inquiring skeptic without fearlessly confronting the evidence I have assembled in God and Soul.

And it saddens me that Christopher Hitchens died without ever grappling with possibly the most important body of information that science has ever revealed.

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6 Comments

  1. So what? It doesn’t really matter whether there is a ‘God’ behind the Universe and all the rest that we see around us. What is important is to realise that ALL forms of religious expression have been cooked up by deranged or cynical ‘prophets’ mostly back in the Dark Ages and have no place in the modern world. I believe that there is a ‘Force’ behind the Universe, but to acknowledge it is not to worship it. It’s a cliche, but Man really has created God in his own image. Religious systems which direct the worship of their millions of followers do so as a means of exercising temporal as well as spiritual control over them. It’s nauseating! Guilt about sex, fear of Hell, all the dismal trappings of mind control. It’s a supreme irony that Christ, an iconoclast intent on cleansing Judaism and reforming its practices not only ended up being murdered by the ‘holy men’ he confronted, but also had a huge new religion established in His name.

    Reply
  2. I agree with a lot of what you say, alriyan, including this: “Religious systems which direct the worship of their millions of followers do so as a means of exercising temporal as well as spiritual control over them.” And these religious systems have inflicted a great deal of suffering on the world. I list some of the evils of corrupt religion in my book, God and Soul:

    “The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on.”

    You write, “It’s a supreme irony that Christ, an iconoclast intent on cleansing Judaism and reforming its practices not only ended up being murdered by the ‘holy men’ he confronted, but also had a huge new religion established in His name.”

    That is a profound observation, alriyan, and I agree with you. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t oppose Judaism, but the corruption of Judaism. And he would be just as intensely opposed to the corrupt forms of Christianity that are now practiced in his name. He would overturn the tables of the Christian moneychangers and call them “hypocrites” to their faces—and they would probably plot to crucify him all over again.

    But not all Christianity is corrupt, and not all religious systems are evil. Christopher Hitchens’ book is subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. But Hitchens was wrong. Religion doesn’t poison everything. Human corruption and greed poisons everything, and we find corruption and greed poisoning our religion, our political systems, our charitable organizations, and even the scientific community.

    As I state in God and Soul, the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, the religion of the Sermon on the Mount, has produced some of the finest achievements of our civilization. The pure, compassionate religion of the Sermon on the Mount produced the hospital movement (in France in the Middle Ages, the first hospital was called a hôtel-Dieu, a “hotel of God”). The religion of the Sermon on the Mount preserved civilization and learning through the Dark Ages. The first universities were founded in Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford, and Paris by priests and monks.

    The pure and uncorrupted religion of the Sermon on the Mount largely invented science as we know it today. Medieval church clerics studied empirical phenomena and catalogued their findings. The study of science came naturally to the religious mind, because the early clerics believed that a rational God had created an orderly world that could be comprehended by human reason.

    As cosmologist Paul Davies observes, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.” Faith in a rational God and a well-ordered creation brought modern science into existence.

    So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth.

    In the same sense (and for the reasons state above), alriyan, I disagree with your statement that “ALL forms of religious expression have been cooked up by deranged or cynical ‘prophets’ mostly back in the Dark Ages and have no place in the modern world.” That statement doesn’t square with the evidence I’ve seen.

    I also have to disagree with this statement, alriyan: “So what? It doesn’t really matter whether there is a ‘God’ behind the Universe and all the rest that we see around us.” The evidence I present in this blog and in my book God and Soul shows that the universe was clearly designed with intentionality and purpose, and that purpose was to bring forth life and consciousness. If there is a purpose to the universe, it should matter to us that we know what that purpose is, and that we align ourselves with that purpose.

    It amazes me that New Atheist writers like Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett have either ignored or misstated the evidence for a Cosmic Designer. In God and Soul, I carefully document how each of them has misrepresented the scientific case for God or simply ignored that case altogether. While I can’t accuse them of deliberately suppressing the truth, it is a fact that they have misrepresented the evidence—either deliberately or in ignorance. These are not ignorant men, but I have to give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they simply do not appreciate the implications of the cosmological evidence.

    You say, alriyan, “I believe that there is a ‘Force’ behind the Universe, but to acknowledge it is not to worship it.” Yes, there is a Force and a Mind and a Purpose behind the Universe; the evidence makes this clear. So how can we remain indifferent to this fact? Shouldn’t we want to know more about the purpose of this Force, this Mind? Shouldn’t we want to align our lives with the Purpose that designed and fine-tuned the laws and forces of the universe? And shouldn’t it bother us that men like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have tried (either deliberately or mistakenly) to suppress or distort the truth about this Force?

    Reply
  3. To Jim Denney. Thank you for a very detailed and well reasoned reply to my rant.

    Reply
  4. Glad to hear from you anytime, alriyan.

    Reply
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