I have just heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist and champion of the new atheism has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. It’s usually quite an aggressive cancer and Christopher was quoted by Larry Taunton as saying “I had plans for the next decade of my life. Perhaps I should cancel them”. Larry Taunton is the founder and executive director of fixed point foundations which has organised many of the debates I have enjoyed watching with Christopher on the subject of religion. He spoke with warmth and concern about hearing the news in a short video clip.
There is no doubt about it, like him or loath him, Hitchens is a formidable opponent. A writer for the new York Times recently wrote “Hitchens has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent’s arguments with a flick of the wrist.” The UK’s Guardian newspaper says “he has carved out a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence.”
It is true, Hitchens is so brilliantly intelligent he can win most arguments, but that must be very frustrating at times. I recall him expressing in one debate that atheists are not necessarily pleased that there is no God, and that it might be comforting to know that there was a God, but there isn’t. He has also said some things that seem to contradict that but it stuck in my mind and I wonder if he would like to be persuaded if only someone could take him on. I remember playing a game with my brother where he would argue for something he didn’t really believe. His mind was agile and knowledgeable enough and he had enough confidence and charisma to defend and convince others of a position he didn’t himself believe. We were quite young but I never forgot the lesson. While rational debate and enquiry are of course extremely valuable in discovering and testing truth, there are many other factors in play. In the case of the gospel the main one being the action of the Holy Spirit upon the heart opening it to believe. That can happen through rational debate or discussion or in a moment when someone least expects it.
Atheists often look to people like Hitchens as a sort of champion for their cause. Christians do the same with people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lain Craig. I couldn’t hope to beat Hitchens in a knock down argument but I relish the thought of Ravi going up against him. I wonder to what extent though these debates change people’s minds or whether they are in fact like football matches. You may cheer if your side wins or get depressed if your side loses but you’re not going to switch sides.
Here is a snippet from a video I have just watched where Christopher summarises some of his thoughts on religion:
“Religion is a poison because it attacks the very heart of our integrity. It says that we would not be able to tell right from wrong, or distinguish good from evil, if we were not afraid of a celestial dictatorship. God did not make man. Precisely the contrary. Man made God. That’s why there are so many Gods and always have been and always will be. I wouldn’t say it was wrong to believe in God but I would say those who believe in God are very seriously mistaken. You can believe in a God if you must, or if you will, without having to be religious. A religious person is someone who goes further than believe that the God hypothesis is true. A religious person is someone who says they know what God wants. They claim to know him in person and to have him revealed. That’s more than anyone can possibly claim. It’s therefore an unsound claim and because it is a large claim on a very major subject it’s likely to lead to fanaticism. It would be idle for me to say that a Quaker was as bad as a member of the Mahdi army, but I do think that religions all make the same mistake in that they surrender reason, which is our most precious faculty, to faith which is a very vague and abstract force…I have been told I am going to hell a few times. I get that all the time.”
I am a Christian and accept that we can know right from wrong and do good rather than wrong, aside from a belief in God. I think that’s the standard Christian position. We are made in God’s image and no matter how fallen we are we still have some sense of morality. The actual argument is that religion gives morality a basis. Without it morality begins to fray and unravel like a loose thread on a woollen jumper.
To think that Christians do good to avoid punishment from a cruel dictator is to totally misunderstand Christianity. Jesus did all that was necessary for me to be accepted by God and avoid his wrath and anger. I act out of love and thankfulness, not fear and coercion. The fact that evil will be punished though, I feel, is a necessary condition for morality to have any absolute meaning. Without it, someone can do evil, laugh at others quaint sense of morality, even profit from it, and be proved right in doing so by coming to the same end as those who do good. In the end, good and bad are interchangeable and right and wrong were just invented abstract concepts. There is a role of fear though. We should fear something if it is fearful and threatens to harm us as this motivates us to do something about it. When I realised I was guilty of sin, fear of God drove me to the cross. It was there that I found a God who so loved me he had put into operation a very costly rescue plan.
Moving on a bit he makes reference to many gods. At first sight this seems to reduce the case for there being one true God. Actually the fact that there are several man made Gods says nothing about the truth or falsehood of one true God. The existence of counterfeit notes does not reduce the chances of their being real bank notes in existence. It just means we have to use our heads a bit and examine the currency we are being given for signs of authenticity.
Thinking that there is a God (presumably a Deist God) is one thing, he says, but once you say you know what he is saying to you, you cross the line. It is true you can try to justify any horror by saying “God told me to do it” but again that doesn’t say anything about the false hood of every claim to know and hear from God. To rule out hearing from God as impossible a head of time “that’s more than anyone can possibly claim” is surely begging the question. We should examine the claims on their own merits.
It’s good to hear him say that some religions or religious behaviour are more dangerous than another. I think it would be much more helpful and accurate if he separated religions a bit more in his thinking rather than lump them all together, although I sympathise with him doing so. It’s easier, and there are lots of similarities and common themes to most of them.
The justification he gives here for dealing with them all together is that they replace reason with faith. I would rather say that I have a reasonable faith. Reason has lead me to faith. It’s often our experience, thinking, and processing that leads us to put our trust in the person of Jesus. It’s like reason walks us to the aeroplane and faith lifts us into the skies. Faith is different to reason but not a substitute. It is not an abstract force, in fact it is more solid than anything else, but even if it was, you could argue that love and morality are abstract forces but these things are very real with the potential for much good in the world.
People have obviously been rather blunt with him at times but something tells me he can take it! It really turns up the contrast when you talk about hell. “are you saying I am going to hell, that I deserve eternal punishment for the things I have not done?“. Well, that’s part of the truth but not the whole truth. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish [go to hell] but have eternal life (John 3:16). The gospel is bitter sweet but we decide which taste lingers in our mouth.
I am sure that he would have some very powerful replies to my puny thoughts but the bottom line is that I am now in the air. The little legs of reason have lead me to an experience, knowledge and living faith in the person of Jesus. As I look down some stuff makes sense and some doesn’t but I’m staying in the plane!
I was so sorry to hear he was not well and so struck by the timing of the news, right in the middle of my write-ups of his debates and thinking. How frail our lives seem at times like this and how important they make these discussions. The arguments are not academic. I am praying that Christopher’s treatment would be successful and that God would heal him and catch him up in his loving arms. I trust he will come through this and look forward to seeing how the experience influences his thinking in the future.