The Believer's Atheist?

There's something just a little bit right about Ross Douthat's description of Christopher Hitchens as "the believer's atheist" in today's NYT.  Douthat says religious believers particularly liked Hitchens because of "his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously."  On a deeper level,
... many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens's case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and "Brideshead Revisited" surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.
In a 2007 roundtable discussion with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett (see hour 2, starting at 10 minutes, transcript here), Hitchens does say he wouldn't want faith to disappear. Maybe on some level he felt that way because religion is such a good friend of the imagination, but Hitchens gives a different explanation--
[CH] So, a question I wanted to ask was this: we should ask ourselves what our real objective is. Do we, in fact, wish to see a world without faith? I think I would have to say that I don’t. I don’t either expect to, or wish to, see that.
[SH] What do you mean by ‘faith’?
[CH] Well I don’t think it’s possible, because it replicates so fast, faith. As often as it’s cut down, or superseded, or discredited, it replicates, it seems to me, extraordinarily fast, I think. For Freudian reasons, principally to do with the fear of extinction, or annihilation
[SH] So you mean faith in supernatural paradigms?
[CH] Yes, the wish. Wish thinking.
[RD] Then why would you not wish it?
[CH] And then, the other thing is, would I want this argument to come to an end, with all having conceded that …
[SH] You wouldn’t like to retire and move on to other stuff?
[CH] ‘Hitchens really won that round, now nobody in the world believes in God’? Now, apart from being unable to picture this, I’m not completely certain that it’s what I want. I think it is rather to be considered as sort of the foundation of all arguments about epistemology, philosophy, biology, and so on. It’s the thing you have to always be arguing against, the other explanation.
[RD] It’s an extraordinary thing. I don’t understand what you’re … I mean, I understand you’re saying that it’ll never work, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t wish it.
[CH] Because, I think, a bit like the argument between, Huxley and Darwin. Sorry, excuse me, Huxley and Wilberforce, or Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, I want it to go on.
[RD] Because it’s interesting.
[CH] I want our side to get more refined, and theirs to be ever more exposed. But I can’t see it with one hand clapping.

If you watch the video, you'll see the other three find Hitchens' stance peculiar.  They want religion to be slayed altogether, whereas Hitchens wants religion to stick around to be slayed and then slayed some more. 


Sadly, Douthat quickly goes off the rails.
At the very least, Hitchens's antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism's less talented apostles--a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic's attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.
Ha! As disconcerting as it may be to Douthat, Hitchens was both: a disbeliever and a rebel. There's no incompatibility there.  He genuinely thought there was no deity and enjoyed the battle over religion. Douthat must know this is a little polemical maneuver on his part. Hitchens' atheism must be nothing but rebellion because--well, because God exists, and we all really know it. 

It gets worse.  Hitchens once asked Douthat at a party what it would prove if Jesus did rise from the dead. This strikes me as a perfectly good question.  Even if you granted a lot of Christian hocus pocus, how would you justify the rest of the hocus pocus--like the idea that everyone else gets to be saved as a result of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection?

But no, the question can't be taken as a legitimate challenge to Christian doctrine.  The question is no challenge to Christianity, Douthat thinks, but rather a sign that atheism is actually a religious dogma.
It's a line whose sheer cussedness cuts to the heart of Hitchens's charm. But it also hints at the way that atheism--especially a public and famous atheism--can become as self-defended as any religious dogma, impervious to any new fact or unexpected revelation.
So--Christian doctrine all really makes obvious sense, if Jesus rose from the dead.   Only (um) it doesn't.

When push comes to shove, I guess Douthat's got to insulate himself from the proddings of a Christopher Hitchens, since he thinks
rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philop Larkin's poem "Aubade'--that "death is no different whined at than withstood."
What a bleak picture!  But it's surely just nonsense.  All the meaning in life is not bound up with catching a train to eternity (I must make my case briefly here--see my first book for a longer argument!). In fact, nobody really thinks "no meaning without eternity" except when they're engaging in religious apologetics.  So nobody should take seriously Douthat's ludicrous suggestion that Hitchens was an implicit believer--
Officially, Hitchens's creed was one with Larkin's. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.
The argument seems to be this--

(1)  Atheists must despair.
(2) Hitchens wasn't full of despair.
(C) Hitchens wasn't a true atheist.

I'll leave it for the reader to identify the problematic premise.


Faust said...

You see it's quite funny, I took this very same event and interpreted it in a different way. Hitchen's wanting to use religion as a whetstone to sharpen his talents further is to me emblematic of his love of the game uber alles. I just think he liked a good scrap.

Anonymous said...

I did not read Ross as saying Hitchens was an implicit believer. That would truly be ridiculous. I read the argument as
1.) Despair follows logically from atheism
2.) Hitchens did not despair.
3.) Hitchens lack of despair did not follow logically/rationally from his atheism..it was "intuited"

Therefore he hopes Hitchens now finds in the afterlife the correct reason why Larkin's despair is unwarranted

Steven Carr said...

'So--Christian doctrine all really makes obvious sense, if Jesus rose from the dead. Only (um) it doesn't.'

Correct - it doesn't.

On the face of it, it seems the forces of evil whupped Jesus good and proper, so that his dad had to rescue him.

As soon as Jesus was rescued, he went home as fast as he could, and has been threatening to come down and beat the forces of evil again (they way he did the first time).

Only for some reason, Jesus seems a bit reluctant to actually come back down from Heaven and have another go.

I wonder why the reluctance? The first go was such a success (wasn't it?), what does he have to be afraid of?

Sally said...

Bitter about something Steve?

Dave Ricks said...

I've enjoyed reading this post several times for what it says explicitly, plus some other angles:

1) I think Hitchens could see what Douthat saw, but Douthat could not see what Hitchens saw. I'd rather be Hitchens, not for his winning position per se, but because I'd rather see more than less -- who wouldn't? Rhetorical question -- or is it?

2) I remember watching the discussion transcribed above on the DVD when it came out, and at the time I thought Hitchens was being a selfish jerk to want religion to last as toy to kick around (as Faust said above, Hitchens liked a good scrap, and I agree, that was true). But the transcription lets me review the part Hitchens said about the persistence of faith: "As often as it's cut down, or superseded, or discredited, it replicates, it seems to me, extraordinarily fast, I think." Well yes, the ape brain that evolved to migrate around the world can be repurposed for reading and writing and many other things, but the brutal survival pressure that evolved it has ended, so now the physical machinery is what it is, including being prone to accept superstitious explanations like Christianity for its place in the world. While I may promote more realistic views among some people, superstitions will be spreading among some other people. I accept that dynamic, not as enjoyment for a fight, but as regularly scheduled maintenance the human race will always need.

Still, I wish Douthat luck in that pantry.