I number myself among that large assembly who, during times of pause and needed relaxation, allow themselves to be amused by Christopher Hitchens. He was probably a clever boy at Oxford — we still have many, thank God — and must have attracted some attention by attaching himself to one or another fully discredited belief. After all, no cause is so finally lost that one or another Oxonian will not struggle to revive it. With early Hitchens, it was Socialism, that exculpatory fetish of an intellectual class burdened by the guilt of the non-suffering. He has since recanted, or seemingly so. But consider what has replaced it: Atheism, which has the same levelling passion that once made Socialism so attractive. Socialism casts the individual as an instrument of the State. It rejects the dignity of the person and a moral worth not measured in units of usefulness. Christianity opposes all this. Thus is the success of Christianity at the expense of Hitchens’ first divinity and he has never forgiven it.
In what sense is the passion of both socialist and atheist that of the Leveller? To answer this, one must reach down into the shallow depths of Mr. Hitchens’ ruling passion which is, alas, Mr. Hitchens! Persons of this sort must attack all that draws attention away from themselves, all that puts in sharp focus what is most common about them. Recall that the author of “God is not Great” treated the reading public to an earlier, comparably intemperate and thuggish assault on, of all people, Mother Theresa. In that thin treatise he made sure that his prejudices would match the vulgarity of the title, The Missionary Position. Whether this was the work of whiskey or of wit is a distinction reserved for productions of some merit, so the question needn’t be addressed here.
But back to the ruling passion. What Hitchens cannot suffer in a Mother Theresa is nothing less than a natural moral goodness. Those of us who cannot attain so laudable a state may then choose between reverential respect or hostile rejection. Hitchens – here, one prays, in a distinct minority – finds contempt for what he cannot approximate. Mother Theresa bothers him. He, after all, is just another pundit who fails to rework the world with words, whereas she did rework the world with deeds. His reworked world, were it to succeed, would relieve none of any suffering save that which is self-imposed; she relieved all she touched of that worst form of suffering, the melancholy belief that one counts for nothing. To a mind like Hitchens, this restoration of their dignity had an inflationary effect. Hitchens loses points in this zero-sum game. And what then of God? Well, gee, just in case God really is great, where does that put Hitchens?
Among the more strained and ignorant of his rants is the preposterous claim that Christianity has been the enemy of civilization. It is informing that a man of actual and unusual literary talent, Evelyn Waugh, in explaining his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930, declared in print that the conflict then faced by the world was between “Christianity and chaos”, the former having been the very productive source of Western civilization. Waugh was right, of course, proving that some clever boys at Oxford also become enlightened men.
Well, one might say, Hitchens is just disappointed with the world and with the evil arising from its many primitive and undeliberated certainties. (Of these, sad to say, he has first-hand knowledge). There are, indeed, religious wars in which mindless bigotry becomes the blunt instrument of massive destruction. Let’s blame God! But then, there is no god. Ah, well let’s blame all those who believe there is. But what on earth preserves so transparent and dangerous a delusion? It must be something in our evolution. Oh, and what might that be? Well, you see…
This empty bit of Cafe Metaphysics is precisely what one expects the more rigorous Oxford tutorials to put on notice. When Jack or Jill pops in with the expected four or five pages and, with breathless and hopeful sincerity, undertakes the burden of being interesting, the wise tutor suggests that a more sensible position — fortified by relevant information and an awareness of the limits imposed by the shortness of life — is quite interesting enough. It is neither necessary nor desirable to substitute for these plain but wholesome offerings the edible flowers of the nouvelle cuisine.
In his treatise on natural science, Aristotle was at pains to observe that, “if the art of shipbuilding were in the wood, there would be ships by nature”. The point, of course, is that clear evidence of design is evidence of a principle or template or schematic according to which the elements are combined in a manner that unassisted nature could not achieve. It is surely suggestive that, at the instant of the Big Bang, all the laws of Physics came in with it, else nothing would have held together. Might there be an intelligent and guiding power behind such an extraordinary creation? Why not? But, Hitchens insists, science offers no evidence. Well, it’s time to come to grips with this chastening fact of life: Science’s “evidence” is of that empirical sort confined chiefly to the marks that matter makes on matter. It offers something of a ‘causal’ account leaving to others the question of whether or not behind such causes there are reasons.
As for evolutionary theory, which has now taken on something of a religious character in the minds of its devotees, just a few words of caution or clarification are enough here. It is a fairly widely accepted principle in philosophy of science that theories are under-determined by data. Thus, a given pool of data, no matter how massive and consistent, can be used to support a wide variety of theoretical integrations having little in common with each other. At the end of the day, the theoretical integration that is provisionally adopted is the one that “works” in the wider pragmatic sense and does no violence to still other theoretical integrations on which scientific accounts depend. The claims of religion should not be included in such an enterprise. Rather, it is the task of religious teaching to construct its own integrations and, in parallel with human discoveries and inventions, attempt to supply the broader framework within which the human enterprise finds meaning and value.
Religious writers and religious institutions were long refractory to the distinction between such truths as are conveyed by scripture and revelation, and the ability of interpreters and commentators to reach these truths and draw reasonable implications from them. Roman Catholicism, only after overcoming an inertia made great by the seductions of temporal power, would then lead the way toward an enlightened position on the proper relationship between scientific evidence and the claims of Faith. Islam, needless to note, persists in ignoring this distinction and thus finds it necessary to closet its true believers in the dull and dangerous world of the 9th Century.
A word more: In science, it is expected that theories worth having are not only retrodictive in accounting for why events occurred as they did, but predictive in setting down what has yet to be observed. Evolutionary theory works well retrodictively but, of course, can say nothing about what living forms will be like in the next millennium or the next thousand millennia. It’s worth considering this if only to recognize the difference between the laws operative in the physical realm and the different factors at work in the organic realm. Neither realm, by itself or in combination, has ever provided a credible explanation for human achievements in science, aesthetics, morals, politics, jurisprudence. These accomplishments are clearly beyond the reductive methods of inquiry and explanation so successful in accounting for the brute facts of the (merely) physical world. Thus, it is empty rhetoric to suggest that we are under some obligation to accept the authority of science when it comes to just these achievements. And, as the greatest of these have been the work of persons guided and inspired by religious conviction, by a faith in powers and plans beyond our earthly comprehension, we must take these facts where we find them. The facts speak to the centrality of religion in human affairs. This makes Christopher Hitchens angry. And when he gets angry, he says “Boo!” To which we should say, “Sit down, Christopher, and finish your spinach, or we won’t let you play with Richard Dawkins”.
Finally, there is little to choose between God is Not Great and The God Delusion. Hitchens and Dawkins earn some credit for reminding us of the extraordinary influence religious thought continues to have. Were it otherwise, they would be jousting with windmills. Both of them (but by now utterly belatedly) berate the believer for not abandoning faith in all but reason, this made oddly synonymous with science. Thus do they become the disease they seek to cure.