It’s rather tardy of course, but I’d like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the late British-born essayist Christopher Hitchens, who left us entirely too soon last month at the age of 62. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with him, but he was always engaging and stimulating, and quite skilled at ripping away the veil of delusion. He was a bright beacon of reason and sanity in a vast sea of media vacuity.
As it happens, I’d only recently read his 2007 bestseller God Is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything. It was an eye-opener even to me, after having spent most of my life studying the outrages committed in the name of religion.
It details how one country had all but eliminated polio when its religious leaders became convinced that the vaccine was somehow unpleasing to God, and so the disease made a tragic comeback. It chronicles how, when Salman Rushdie was living under the threat of death for being “blasphemous” (i.e., too candid) by extremists of one religion, the clerics of other religions (notably Western Christians), rather than condemn the fundamentalist fanatics, criticized Rushdie for bringing it on himself. It even makes the case that such supposed paragons of progressivism as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in fact fundamentalists who fought progress almost as much as they promoted it. And it offers a rebuttal to the trendy claim that atheism has inspired more bloodshed than religion (a myth we’ll be examining in more detail in the future).
Hitch also mentions an interesting epiphany he had about religious dogma as a parochial student when one of his teachers commented that it was so wonderful of God to put so much green in nature, so that it would be pleasing to human eyes. Even at that age, he was perceptive enough to realize that she was thinking ass-backward: nature isn’t green because we like it; rather, we like green because it is so abundant in nature. It is we who have made the concession, not our creator. But by assuming that God sometimes caters to our wishes as long as we constantly cater to His, people use “it’s God’s will” not only to rationalize evil that already exists, but to excuse the evil they commit. Or, as another wise soul put it:
“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” — Susan B Anthony
With his biting criticism of organized religion (as well as such diverse public figures as Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa), Hitchens heard from Christians a great deal – usually excoriating him and promising him the penalty of eternal hellfire for the sin of thinking too much. And when it was revealed that he had a terminal case of esophageal cancer (for all his brilliance, he nonetheless indulged in the indefensible stupidity of slow suicide by tobacco), many of them contacted him to gloat over God’s “punishment” of his impiety. (Have you ever known an atheist to talk to people like this?) He responded to this tackiness as he always had, noting that God also doles out such afflictions, and far worse, to the devout – as well as to children too young to understand faith – while many noted skeptics have lived to a ripe old age.
A staunch atheist to the end, he nonetheless made it clear that atheism was not necessarily a prerequisite for rationalism. “Believe in God if you must”, he said, but religion is another matter. Religion is not only believing in God, but believing you understand God’s will, which is something nobody could possibly do. (And I might add, Hitch, that it isn’t religion itself that’s the problem, but religiosity – i.e., the compulsion to impose one’s own beliefs on the world at large.)
Yet many people claim they can do just that. And the results are often profoundly disturbing. (Anyone remember 9-11?) I solemnly swear to you that I once overheard the following conversation between parent and child:
SON: Dad, was David right-right, or was he right-wrong?
FATHER: He was right-wrong. He did the right thing, it just wasn’t what God wanted him to do.
Here was a parent giving his child guidance about how to behave in the world by totally reframing morality to conform to his own religious beliefs. But as grotesque as it sounded coming from him, the thing is it happens all the time. He was merely expressing in balder terms the kind of attitude that religionists exhibit as a matter of course.
That’s why it was so refreshing to hear a man like Christoper Hitchens challenge common perceptions about the will of God, focusing instead on what might be called the “won’t of God”. The irony is that if there is a God, and if He is as benevolent as folks suppose, then Hitch probably was following His will as few others ever do.