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The Chambers Report: Ayes For Atheism

I.

Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated "public intellectual" who was born in Dartmoor, Southwestern England, but eventually became an American citizen, died of esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011, at the age of 62. As one for whom the elegant use of language was a defining attribute, Hitchens himself wryly observed the irony of ultimately losing his vocal abilities. In Mortality, his final book of essays - much reviewed recently, most prominently in The New York Times by his friend Christopher Buckley - the dying author caustically noted:

My two assets, my pen and my voice - and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I had been "straying into the arena of the unwell" and now "a vulgar little tumor" was evident. This alien can't want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered.

As perhaps the English-speaking world's most famous and outspoken atheist, Hitchens on his deathbed became the unsurprising target of scores of religious proselytizers, all hell-bent on playing some role in bringing about an eleventh-hour conversion experience for the Great Heretic.

Not to worry, however, for various pages of Mortality are, in effect, continuations of Hitchens' atheist classic God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and thus, in Buckley's words, "devoted to a final, defiant and well-reasoned defense of his non-God-fearingness."

Hitchens' defiance in almost all matters of import joined forces with his irresistible eloquence to win for him friends and admirers across the globe. Although hardly anyone was his intellectual equal, thought-leaders in many spheres crowded entirely without envy into the Washington apartment where Hitchens and his "devoted tigress wife" Carol (the description is Buckley's) often held court for "eight-hour dinners . . . when, after consuming enough booze to render the entire population of the nation's capital insensible, Christopher would rise and deliver flawless 20-minute recitals of poetry, polemics, and jokes, capping it off saying, 'How good it is to be us.'"

Indeed! And all present agreed. As an awed participant in many such high-toned (and, let's admit, shamelessly self-congratulatory) evenings, Buckley confesses: "The truth of that declaration was evident to all who had the good fortune to be present at those dazzling recreations. Bliss it was in those wee hours to be alive and in his company, though the next mornings were usually a bit less blissful."

Yet, if there was abundant arrogance suffusing this spoiled and privileged circle, what of it? These were, after all, prodigiously talented people . . . and they knew it, even as they readily acknowledged Hitchens' rightful place as first among remarkably fortunate social equals. (Here, it should be noted, as well, that Hitch's star continued to shine just as brightly in his native UK even after his permanent departure for the US; he for years numbered Man Booker Prize winners Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan among his closest friends).

Hitchens was aware of his "specialness" even as a schoolboy in England, when he dared to correct one of his favorite teachers for erroneously confusing her two chief roles - as nature instructor and Bible teacher - in a "Satanic" effort to seduce her young charge into a lifetime of piety and unquestioning Christian belief. Even at the age of nine - "When I had not even a conception of the argument from design" - young Christopher "simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong."

Hitchens' specialness became ever more evident, almost daily, as he matured into a kind of intellectual Super Man inhabiting a world that was pretty much his alone. There was simply no one else like him. Buckley, employing his own considerable authorial powers, tries to describe his "unique" (a word I rarely use, but surely it rightfully applies here) friend and mentor:

He was a man of abundant gifts, Christopher: erudition, wit, argument, prose style, to say nothing of a titanium constitution that, until it betrayed him in the end, allowed him to write word-perfect essays while the rest of us were groaning from epic hangovers and reaching for the ibuprofen.

Buckley then adds that Hitchens' "greatest gift of all may have been the gift of friendship," a characteristic emphasized by each of the 31 A-listers (Buckley calls them "boldface names") who rose to speak at his memorial service. Unusual among powerful and persuasive "great" people, Hitchens, for all his talents, was steadfast to the end in believing that what should matter most in every well-lived life is not self, but devotion to others, "the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity." In his introduction to Hitch-22: A Memoir, another product of his prolific deathbed days, he wrote:

[The essentialness of love] has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience. I can't hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.

If in Mortality, (or, indeed, in any of Hitch's other late reminiscences) there is no "frank terror of oblivion" - the frustrated proselytizers got nowhere with their late-hour efforts - there is, nevertheless, as Buckley reports, "keen and great regret at having to leave the party early." Or, in Hitchens' own words:

The novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don't so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it's time to be on my way. No, it's the snickering that gets me down.

Would that we all could face the Grim Reaper with such grace, humor and inner strength.

But now, let's see what this supremely gifted observer of and commentator on our troubled world had to say in his best-known book about the "poison" that has, for millennia, been doing all that it could to destroy everything in its path.

II.

Early on God Is Not Great, Hitchens quotes his favorite passage from the epistle of Saul of Tarsus (later to become St. Paul) to the Philippians (chapter 4, verse 8):

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

What Hitchens loved most about this famous passage at the core of what was to become "Christian" teaching was that it was essentially secular . . . 'because it shone out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and bullying which surrounds it."

To go further, Hitchens says that "the argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning - but by no means the end - of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning - but by no means the end - of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other."

This admission that religion, despite its horrendous failings, will seemingly always be with us would be abysmally depressing were it not for Hitchens' unyielding confidence in the staying power of reason. An inveterate Darwinian, he relies above all on the, to him, clear rightness of evolutionary law to win in the end. Until then, though, there will always be the non-sensical demons of religion to cope with.

And those demons are everywhere - always have been - to the great detriment of all human history, to which religion, in all its many guises, stands as the implacable enemy.

Hitchens' book is a brilliant screed against all religions by an atheist who believes that (1) whatever usefulness religion may once have had is now entirely in the past; that (2) its foundational texts are transparent fables; that (3) it is a totally man-made imposition on all that we know; that (4) it has long been an enemy of science and inquiry; that (5) it has subsisted almost entirely on lies and fears; and that (6) it long has been the accomplice of slavery, genocide, racism and tyranny.

Hitchens denotes that religion could be tolerated if it were merely pablum for the poor and ignorant who mostly are its witless dupes and preys, but such is not the nature of the insatiable beast - most religions go far beyond neutrality to insist on the blind conformity of those not yet seduced by its absolute demands.

In Hitchens' view, religion is by no means a benign source of hope for the downtrodden. It is - and has ever been - an almost categorically negative enemy of all things rational; "it poisons everything." His book sets out to prove this and, by its end, the thinking reader would be a fool to oppose him.

Religion has supported slavery everywhere, acted in cahoots with the Nazis, and argued intensively against every scientific advance since the Dawn of Time.

Worse, religion has, for millennia, been directly responsible for the deaths - senseless deaths - of millions of innocent people, from the Egyptians of 5,000 years ago to 9/11 and beyond.

(As I write this, we are mourning the murder of the American Ambassador to Libya, killed for no reason other than the senseless overreaction of religiously zealous Libyans to a ridiculous film now rejected even by its makers.)

Why do we continue to tolerate such things? Not, in Hitchens' view, because they have anything at all to do with morality - they don't. No, it's all purely about power - from the Pharaohs to Al-Qaeda.

III.

If Hitchens had any competition during his lifetime for the singular title of our language's most celebrated atheist, it was from Richard Dawkins, the much-admired and outspoken British evolutionary biologist.

Like Hitchens, Dawkins attended Oxford's Balliol College, but then went his own way to become one of the leading scientists of his day.

Always a Darwinian - yet, unlike Hitchens, a professional one - Dawkins often has said that it was his dawning understanding of evolution that led to his full-throated public atheism, a stance that brought him world acclaim when he published The God Delusion in 2006.

To date, Delusion has far outsold God Is Not Great - more than 2 million copies in English alone to Great's 500,000 - and has been translated into 31 languages.

Its evidently greater popularity, however, probably has more to do with Dawkins' gift for self-promotion than with any seeming superiority inherent in either book. Their arguments are essentially the same, with the bonhomie of Hitchens being the most compelling dividing line between them.

During the last decade, Dawkins has pumped up his already swollen public persona even further as he has enjoyed a sort of secondary career as a constant and very public opponent of Al-Qaeda, whose destruction of New York's twin towers, he says, "changed everything" for atheism:

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence, but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11 changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false confidence to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's stop being so damned respectful!

Beyond the palm leaves tossed his way, Dawkins' public and intentionally provocative declarations have also brought him much criticism from many quarters, including, of course, from religious spokespeople on all sides.

The God Delusion has certainly done its share to fan the flames - a fact that pleases the author more than a little. Clearly, Dawkins loves his fame as the self-proclaimed "most prominent atheist" in the world. Unfortunately, his zeal to live up to the title carries with it an arrogance that almost defeats his purpose.

Every page of Delusion loudly proclaims Dawkins' own faultless "rightness," even as it spotlights his obvious brilliance and eviscerates pathetically self-righteous "believers" of every stripe for the last 2,000 years.

Dawkins is not necessarily against any one religion, he's against all religions because, in his view, all demand a thoughtless, unwavering adherence that is not merely stupid and aimless, it is also malicious and perilous.

As one of the planet's singularly recognizable Darwinians, Dawkins hates most of all the (disputed) fact that, for untold centuries, all religions have relentlessly opposed all scientific advances. To him, science is, by definition, rational and always seeking answers, while religion is irrational in the extreme and invariably claims to have all the answers already at hand. To bolster his argument, he easily knocks down all the so-called proofs for the existence of God - there is no such proof! - and with a vengeance takes on every mindless creationist in sight.

To Dawkins - and Hitchens, too - religion is, by its very nature, a constant source of war and grief. It is a powerful plaything used by emperors, kings, potentate, and presidents alike to keep their people down and propel their own interests.

Worst of all, religion is used in every culture to indoctrinate children early on, warping them long before they have developed reasoning skills adequate for asking the right questions and thinking for themselves.

At bottom, for Hitchens and Dawkins alike, every religion is corrupt and founded entirely on human vanity and weakness. Whether one prefers the relatively easy-going brilliance of the former or the more in-your-face self-aggrandizement of the latter, any objective reader will profit from engaging either writer on his own turf.

Given the fact that religion - in one or several of its many guises - is deeply mired in every sphere of human activity today, to fail to challenge its hegemony is, to recall Plato, to live an unexamined life; a life not really worth living.

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The Chambers Report used to be known as Bob's Books. We've renamed it. Bob welcomes your comments..

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Previously in The Chambers Report:
* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

* Melville, Elvis And Baseball

* A Tale Of Three Cities

* How Obama And Bush Undermined America



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Posted on September 17, 2012


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