Snap, crackle and pop! Or is it snap crackle and puff? Last month I was present as British journalist Christopher Hitchens huffed and puffed in a tirade against religion.. Hitchens, as a leader of the new atheists brigade, was proclaiming his message and promoting his new book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
When Hitchens speaks he demonstrates the superb verbal skills of a quick and intelligent mind. Unfortunately, in this presentation the mediocre level of his arguments did not match the stylistic firepower. Here was an intellectual media star strangely ignorant of serious theological thought and the Christian tradition. He constructed a caricature of a horrid and generic “Religion,” and then proceeded to the attack.
Hitchens was also simplistic in his veneration of generic “Science.” I suspect that he may be innocent of the newest work in the philosophy of science, but for this discussion go to John F.Haught’s new book God and the New Atheism.
There is no doubt however, that Christopher Hitchens passionately hates religion as he (mis)understands it. He is not posing as the village atheist simply in order to sell books. Amidst the furious flow of indignant invective there were two revealing moments.
Abruptly Hitchens interjected a point I had noted before in an earlier piece of his. He described how “appalling” and “repugnant” he found the claim that someone else, i.e. Jesus Christ, ever should or ever could die for his sins and save him. No, no, he Christopher, and every other autonomous individual must alone take complete moral responsibility for his fate.
Hitchens shows revulsion at the very thought that he could receive a gift from God. Any idea of a mutual love relationship or communion with the Divine is to be rejected. This kind of proud refusal, or “Non Serviam,” always produces a fairly invincible obstacle to faith. Standing alone, the unbowed unbeliever rejects the Other, the More, the Ineffable One.
Unfortunately, proud independence often ends in an elite rejection of communion with one’s naïve and needy fellow humans. Hitchens gave a demonstration of arrogant contemptuousness in a mean dismissal of a hapless questioner. No fool he.
But then in another revealing moment Hitchens suddenly began to assure us all that atheists were not reductionists, or without developed sensibilities. While humanity could and should forthwith dispense with God, we could never live without music. Music and art are deemed necessary as they bring experiences of transcendence. Yes, yes, as believers we agree, but is this Godless transcendence grounded on nothing?
The new atheists arrive at the old question. From where do joy, love, music, meaning and beauty arise? Inevitably anti-faith crusaders try to assert (falsely,) that science, reason and religion are in opposition, and then try to claim that aesthetics and religion are separate.
So to Christopher Hitchens we send this message approved by Emily Dickinson:
“This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
If this sparks no response, there are always the mysterious words of Hildegard of Bingen who says “God is Music.”