Saturday, June 02, 2007

Response to Christopher Hitchens

Recent years have seen a resurgence of works devoted to skeptical themes, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Daniel Dennet's "Breaking the Spell," and Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great." Given the modest contributions which atheism has made to society over the years, this counts as news, and the sight of these dogged intellectuals butting heads with fundamentalists in public debates has at least made for an entertaining spectacle. It also provides thinking Christians with an opportunity to talk about our faith in a meaningful way, as encompassing the full measure of the spiritual and intellectual life. Hitchens' argument can be summed up in his phrase, "Religion poisons everything." This means that everything religious, insofar as it is religious, is bad, and that everything which has been affected by religion would be better off without it. Now as a statement of fact this is simply wrong and almost anyone not blinded by ideology can see that. Yet the argument also fails on a deeper level and it is on this level that the argument is of interest to religious minds. What Hitchens is proposing is a fundamental separation between what faith holds to be true and what reason knows. Therefore, we ought to be able to see this separation at work in a history of cultural achievement. A survey of Renaissance painting, for instance, should clearly reveal an absolute distinction between the contents of faith and the achievements of reason, such that an atheist could clearly point to the difference and identify where the purity of rational achievement ends and the "poisoning" of religion begins. Hitchens himself claims to be a great lover of the arts and even cites the religious poetry of John Donne and George Herbert as among his favorites. Yet this is bizarrely inconsistent, to the point that I would actually question the mental competence of anyone who claims to believe it. To try and separate the "religious" from the "rational" elements in Herbert's poetry is akin to trying to surgically remove the soul from a living creature. There is a kind of suicidal impulse in Hitchens' argument which is by no means peripheral to the "new atheism" which he represents. Dawkins and others have speculated about what would be the best means of "curing" the so-called virus of religion, and all options are on the table. This is not the first time a plan to get rid of either a single religion or all of them has been proposed. I would simply say that whenever public intellectuals begin discussing plans to purify the culture of foreign or undesirable elements, this is cause for concern. It is certainly reason enough for Hitchens and others to reconsider their position.

1 comment:

Michael Krahn said...


I am a Christian who is writing a blog series on Dawkins' book "The God Delusion".

Join the conversation at: