There is a sense in which, of all that fish might discover, water itself is excluded. To be so immersed in the stuff, at all times and for all of a lifetime, is to be so habituated to it as to be insensitive not only to its nature but to its necessity. By analogy, one who argues against religion, and specifically against Christianity, is typically oblivious to the fact that the very terms of criticism – suffering, injustice, oppression, truth, science…the list approaches dictionary-length – received either their first or their fullest development within the sphere of religious teaching, practice and disputation. Indeed, beyond the ambit of Christian teaching, what’s wrong with oppression? Aristotle was satisfied that, “It is fitting that Hellenes shall rule barbarians.” The Jews of the Old Testament railed against the Egyptian oppressors but surely not on the grounds that slavery is always and everywhere a moral wrong. I note this to make clear the unintended irony of Christopher Hitchens’s attack on religion as a source of, yes, oppression!
Let me stay with this for the moment. The Sixteenth Century founder of what is called the “School of Salamanca,” the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, is perhaps the lesser known of the leaders of thought regarding the Just War; certainly less known than Aquinas or Grotius or Pufendorf. But it was Francisco de Vitoria’s De Indis that served as an unanswerable indictment against the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic clergy for the treatment of native Americans; a treatise that provided the firmest foundations for a universal prohibition against all attempts to rule the conscience of the individual person. Though tightly and logically argued, De Indis draws its central maxims from the doctrines of the very Church whose clergy are shown to be treasonous to that very teaching. Note that it is not to classical Athens or ancient Rome that one looks to learn that “mercy is the perfection of justice”, or that, by way of universal brotherhood, all persons are of equal moral worth, or that acts of war for reasons divorced from the highest moral ends are unjust, or that each person is under an obligation to love others, even those who might be cast in the earthly role of enemies. In a word, then, Hitchens’s rants at The Kings College debate, to the extent that the content was at all summoning and convincing, must find their grounding in – ready? – the Christian canon. Oh, and yes, NOT ISLAM!
But what about (Gads, here we go again, and again and again…) The Problem of Evil?. Before there was Hitchens there was (a) a veritable army of savants wrestling with this for about twenty centuries, (b) a library of refined, informed philosophical analysis establishing nothing less than the very terms of the debate and (c) a range of candidate-solutions, no one of them entirely successful but each of them rising to levels of judgment worthy of the topic itself. One could have wished that, with all this firmly in place for the better part of a millennium, Mr. Hitchens might have drawn upon resources deeper than his own animus. He did not.
“Evil”, of course, is not a term whose meaning is univocal. Leibniz found it necessary to distinguish between and among metaphysical evil (understood as the defects and imperfections of all that is finite), physical evil (the principal instance of which is the suffering to which the flesh is heir), and moral evil or sin, which is perpetrated by human acts of will. As to why God allows any of this, it is necessary to recognize the three species, for the same answer is not applicable to all in precisely the same way. Why the created universe is imperfect and defective is, on Leibniz’s reckoning, a logical requirement. Where the essence of something is perfection itself, whatever matches it cannot be distinguished from it, this according to Leibniz’s law of the identity of indiscernibles. Thus, if God is distinct from his creations, the latter cannot be perfect.
This would be sufficient (logically) to establish that created life must be comparably defective, but there is more to be said about physical evil: It is the impulse to creativity, to benevolence and sympathy, to resignation. In a word, it is an evil that is productive of good and only one who can see the entire landscape of the creation could fathom just how and where this evil serves the good of the whole.
I do not see this entire landscape, nor does Christopher Hitchens, nor does Dinesh D’Souza. What Mr D’Souza and I have in common, and what Mr Hitchens lacks, is an awareness of the limitations of our perspective. Mr Hitchens believes that his is wider owing to science, but science has its own metaphysical foundations and is thus constrained and deformed by these. Deformed? Yes, for science can explain a cosmos that has been ‘engineered’ to fit into the explanatory and investigative framework of science itself. It’s a good framework: It gets us to the moon and back. It’s a limited framework: It can’t tell us if the journey is worth it.
Enter Einstein, Deism and Theism, and Mr Hitchens’s spurious standing as an interpreter. First, “Deism”. As it happens, the roots of deism are to be found in reactions against the frenzied enthusiasms of the Witch trials and executions, with the better minds of the period reaching the conclusion that the guide must be reason, not scripture. It is a widely and wrongly argued claim that “Deism” is an achievement of the Enlightenment. Early in the seventeenth century, the movement of thought and sentiment had already produced a large cadre of free-thinkers, atheists, libertines, so much so that in Burton’s classic The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) there is a special clinical category reserved for them: that of religious melancholy arising from the woeful thesis that God is merely Nature itself! Charles Blount, who must be on anyone’s list of Deism’s Founding Fathers, put the ism this way in 1695:
“REASON…being the Supreme and Primitive Director of every Man, to infringe its Liberty of directing, is to invade the Common Charter of Nature, and every Man’s Right and Property…”
Nothing in the foundational arguments of the major deists is at the expense of “theism” or, for that matter, Christianity. Rather, the starting point for all religious claims, it was insisted, must be rationality itself. A Deist founder as influential as Blount was Charles Gildon whose The Deists Manual (1705) makes all this quite clear:
“Man then being confes’d to be the Effect of an Intelligent and good Cause, not of Chance, this Cause could want, neither the Will, nor the power to put him into a Station capable of yielding him that Happiness, which was design’d (for) him; but it being evident, that this entirely depends on Society; it follows that Society is of divine Institution…It is also as evident, that God cou’d not in his Wisdom and Goodness, lay on Man a necessity of Society, without furnishing him with means of making that Society conducive to that End, which a Benevolent maker propos’d,
that is, the Happiness of the Creature. This Means is evidently Reason; which plainly discovers, by Man’s Activity of Mind, and Reflection on the nature of Things, all the necessary Rules of this Society, which must make it useful to the common Happiness of the whole”.
Only later, when the French philosophes mounted their war on all authority, equally on that of Cross and of Crown, did the ism take on the dismissive and abusive tone that is now so “official” as to make Mr Hitchens seem nearly scholarly. Yes, Spinoza argued against the notion that God intervenes “occasionally” to keep the universe in order, etc., but Spinoza – as Mr D’Souza correctly noted – is not the last word on Deism. As for Einstein, his several utterances on the subject, chiefly in letters and staged debates, find him recoiling from the concept of a personal divinity stepping in to answer prayers, etc. I have no reason to consult Einstein on such matters, any more than I would consult Thomas Aquinas on the curvature of the universe. However, I might well consult Einstein’s physics if I were of a mind to consider whether the cosmos as given is best conceived as DESIGNED. Obviously, it IS designed, whatever one’s position is on the quite different question of whether there is a DESIGNER. As for this latter question, once it is granted that “X” expresses design at the level of macro- and micro-laws, surely a reasonable inference is that a designer is at the very origin of the thing. None of this is for science to prove or disprove, and only the slaves of SCIENTISM are inclined to think otherwise.
There is no doubt but that “Godless Communism” has been the death squad for tens of millions. Mr Hitchens covers for this by speaking with confident but empty authority about Pope Pius XII and the Nazis. He seems unaware of the Encyclical of 1939 (Summi Pontificatus) which commands solidarity with the Jews and with all who believe in God. How did the New York Times characterize the Encyclical? “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoring of Poland”.
Had I time to prepare a reading list for Mr Hitchens, I would be sure to include Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis, as well as Ronald J. Rychlak’s Hitler, the War and the Pope.
D’Souza won the debate, not merely owing to the force of his arguments, but as a result of the utter lack of argument on the part of Hitchens. The latter confuses a conclusion with the argument that leads to it. It is not enough in debates of this sort for one side to say TELL ME THE ULTIMATE TRUTH OF EVERYTHING OR I’LL DECLARE YOU TO BE AN OPPRESSIVE FRAUD. What Mr Hitchens would presume to explain is, in large measure, what science wisely avoids and what religion hopefully approaches, even if through a glass darkly.
There is much on offer for Mr Hitchens, just in case his mind is as open as he believes the mind of the Christian to be closed. He can read Dinesh D’Souza’s recent book, which is a truly fine effort; if he is even more philosophically inclined, he might thumb an exceptional recent work by the distinguished philosopher, John Cottingham, “The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value”.
Mr. Hitchens: There’s really much more to all this than you now can imagine.