Why Hitchens was wrong on religion
I yesterday wrote a brief tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens who passed away yesterday. I noted that I found his anti-theism crass. I now would like to explain why that is. I also do this in response (though it may not seem obvious) to the sentiment of Jim Denham, who has written in the comments thread on my friend Simon’s blog, that “for a leftist to side with the Christian apologist … against Hitchens and/or Dawkins is simply intellectual bankruptcy and a betrayal of a fundamental priciple (rationalism).” I add that one can be, on matters of foreign policy, more Hitchens than Galloway, and in the same breathe, on matters of religion, more Eagleton than Hitchens.
Hegel once said “Religion is the expression we give to a meaningless world” – out of which came so much bluster from Jean Paul Sartre, and from which Marx situated the opiate of the masses. Hegel, also in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, noted that religion is “the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality”. The notion of religion as a fantastic realisation hit the correct buttons for atheists for ever more, which is why this particular line found its way into the Christopher Hitchens edited The Portable Atheist – an unserious, random collection of de-contextualised quotes, aphorisms and essays showing an historical atheist foundation from the Greeks to unqualified theoretical astronomers.
In the same way that Stephen Jay Gould wanted to distinguish theism from religion to highlight the message of morality, what in actual fact Hegel is showing is that religion has quite become the human, all too human, expression needed in order to fill the vacuum that human essence represents. This, like Marx’ comment on it being the opiate of the masses, is a value free judgement of religion, and altogether scathing comment on the emptiness of human existence to which the existentialists were able to deliver forth on.
Carry this over as a comment on human existence and human opinion then you hit the mark. Carrying it over as a stick to beat religion with misses the mark and, in turn, ensures the stick is struck on the very head of the individual throwing the hit. Blaming religion for the people who represent it would be like blaming Kim Jong-il on Karl Marx – and Christopher Hitchens would not have had it this way. After all, and “Against all claims that he’d drifted rightwards, Hitchens insisted that he remained a Marxist in his habits of thinking”. As for Jong-il, it was very well known that he was frequently used as a target of Hitchens’ principled opposition to totalitarianism, including the celestial dictatorship that he imagined a nation under God would be (or, indeed, North Korea itself which was “a formal necrocracy, given that Kim Il-sung –who has been dead since 1994– remain[d] the titular head of state there.”).
So does religion poison everything? No, like with gun crime it is people who kill people, but to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, it is people with guns. People with religion have poisoned, and will poison again – but to make utility of, and then modify, a challenge that Hitchens raised while on the circuit against God, name an unethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer. As Hegel would have seen, the believer who poisons has religion to fill the void in lieu of essence, religion in this instance is doing nothing at all. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus says “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” – suggesting that where there is proof of glue that binds humanity together, there is the expression and actualisation of the message as spread by Jesus. What Jesus, here, is not saying is that humans are this expression. The clause “For where” exposes that for every where that there is two or three gathering together, there is also some where there is not. Religion is, and subsequently poisons where it does, because what religion has become is the fantastic realisation of something void – in other words human essence.
It is important to remember this, particularly with the passing of Christopher Hitchens, because this is where his beef was, even if he didn’t realise it himself (or conduct the fight being honest with whom or what it was he targeted). But it is also his shortfall. Hitchens was avowedly anti-theist, and thought, as did Mikhail Bakunin in his own reversal of Voltaire’s famous aphorism, that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him”. To any warning from Acts 5:39, Hitchens would happily “be found even to fight against God”. But Hitchens decided to say religion poisons everything – and I have seen him both qualify this assumption and say that he didn’t author the subtitle himself and thus I can only assume, myself, that he stood by this. It seemed to me he suffered from the very same things he loathed about his targets, that he denied the existence of something (the truth of religion) on the grounds that it made him uncomfortable (God is like a father who never leaves his child alone; is always there ensuring no independence is formed) and for this reason he wasn’t even on par with the other new atheists (who at least, in vain, tried to prove that God was not real). If contrarianism is the ability to take a step back and assess a motion without appeals to the emotions, then this is a noble trait and one which I think in many cases Hitchens had – which is why I consider him a great intellectual hero and for why I was extremely sad to hear of his passing. But if contrarianism is an instinctual position – and here I do believe an anti-theistic position often looks like – then it is crass, like the devil’s advocate.
(And of course, before I finish, I should just like to give my obligatory line, when writing about these matters, and say that I myself am an atheist and do not believe in God purely on the grounds that I have no reason to do so, any more than I should believe in magical wizards for whom I, also, have no proof.)