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12/18/2013 09:40 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

Remembering Christopher Hitchens: Religious Belief and Hitch's Greatest Hits

Peter Power via Getty Images

On the second anniversary of Christopher Hitchens' death (December 15, 2011), the words of Proust bring a certain consolation:

People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.

Alas, for us like-minded unbelievers left behind, the consolation is bitter sweet. Brother Hitchens is not merely traveling abroad. At least in the ordinary sense of the word. And yet, since his departure, his remaining "aura of life" has only slightly dimmed.

His legacy, as Proust described, remains in our memories. It's enlivened by his articles, books, interviews, and -- my favorite -- his on-line debates about religion.

His legacy is a powerful one. He was once asked if he thought his arguments changed the minds of the religious. He said that he thought so. And even met people claiming such.

He was certainly correct. I'm just one of many examples. Bathed in the womb in the conservative Christianity of my wonderful mother, then later as a child and teenager I fully embraced religion. But, over the course of some 30 years, things change.

At 24, after Bible College, I left fundamentalist Christianity, moving into the evangelical movement and completing an M.A. in Christian apologetics (I know! What?!). I did, nevertheless, leave the church soon after. I could no longer tolerate listening to the Anglican Church debate the "morality" of same-sex marriage. It tainted me.

I still went on to do a doctorate in theology, with my director being a "death of God" theologian. I topped it with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Both doctoral dissertations closely examined religious belief, using some of the most tough-minded philosophical atheists around. I even spent a fellowship year at the Christian philosophers' bastion of academic research: Alvin Plantinga's Center for the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. Through it all, my religious beliefs were changing, yet I still felt the arguments from the nonreligious were not altogether convincing. I wrote a book about it.

Nobody moved me more out of the headlights of religion as Hitchens. My affection for him started the moment I saw Anderson Cooper interview him the day Jerry Falwell died. And then the spanking -- or, more affectionately, "Hitch-slap" -- Hitchens gave Hannity the next day on FOX. The man was on to something.

Over the past few years, I've probably watched every debate he had with the best-known apologists of religion. All his interviews. Throughout I saw and heard points even the most sophisticated of philosopher hadn't imagined or articulated. And with the wit and charm few academics have or encourage.

So I did what seemed the logical next step. Offer a course on him: "On Religion: Christopher Hitchens' Greatest Hits."

No surprise, the course was filled to capacity, with a waiting list to boot. Unlike your typical university course, in class we showed vignettes from his many debates about religion. We selected his most important points, extolling and examining them more closely.

This is just a small selection of his best hits:

Anti-theism

Hitchens was happy to consider himself an atheist. But unlike some atheists who still have residue yearning for the reality of their abandoned faith, such as a caring, Fatherly, deity and the promise of eternal life, Hitchens refused the nostalgia. "It would be horrible if it were true." And with a slight adjustment to "atheism," he described himself as an anti-theist.

As he explained it, there's nothing in organized religion one should wish true. It's time for humanity, individually and collectively, to grow up. An all-seeing authority figure, rivaling the most dictatorial regimes in this earthy world? It would be "celestial North Korea," he suggested.

There was nothing in the stories of religion comparable to a life and mind that are free, all with the liberty to make inquiry into the natural world and the universe as a source of enlightenment and awe.

Atheism isn't a World-view

This is a point some of his fellow new-atheists have made too, and it seems right once you think it through. Atheism, at its best, is a quality that names an absence, not presence, of a belief. And that absence of a belief doesn't constitute a "world-view."

Ordinarily, if we think and study, read books, and converse with informed people, we'll likely, over time, put together a world-view: (hopefully) a mostly reasonable and coherent set of beliefs that describe our understanding of the world.

If that understanding doesn't include components of religious belief, it's a stretch to describe that world-view -- the whole of its structure -- as "atheism." The unimportance of a belief shouldn't dictate one's world-view. Turning the tables, one could ask, are Christians "anti-atheists"?

Although Hitchens seemed to also think, in earlier years, that holding the title of "atheist" was important given the cultural power of religion, there's reason to think that Hitchens was hoping for a day when such a label wouldn't be necessary. Perhaps that time has come.

"Am I an atheist?" Now with Hitchens' prodding, albeit with a different tact, I think you are still taking religion too seriously when you call yourself an atheist. How about just being an ordinary person?

Science vs. religion

Religion, Hitchens explained, was our first attempt at discribing the world around us; our first crack at science, hygiene and health care, including philosophy and ethics. Celestial deities shining down on us. Gods controlling the weather and climate, and thus the need for dietary laws and human sacrifices. And rules about copulation.

Today's world is known much better, even though we now know how much we don't know.

While so much is left to explore, scientists have started to explain how the universe began; how evolution happened on planet Earth; some of the goings-on in the human brain and the altogether, bizarre, world of quantum physics. Humanity has come of age. At least if we accept the emancipation. It's where awe is waiting to welcome us.

Look at the pictures of the world, beyond Earth, provided by the Hubble Telescope. The billions of stars. The galaxies. Consider what it'd be like approaching the Event Horizon of a black hole. Compare our new discoveries with those stories in religious texts. Compare the Event Horizon with the story about Moses, like the "burning bush" of the Old Testament.

The comparisons should, (1) draw our attention to the magnitude of the universe's actual awe, splendor, and non-woo-woo mystery; (2) remind us that stories of scripture shouldn't be a sort of zombie set of doctrines and moral principles reanimated for today's world.

Incredulity

Was Hitchens' incredulity acerbic and coarse? Irreverent and obscene? Depends on your tastes and sensitivities.

More importantly, these qualities were imbedded in charm and wit that set up the discussion of religion in a way that awoke our reflective capacities. True, Hitchens wasn't a professional philosopher. But that's why he was much more effective and interesting.

After watching Hitchens in action, you might find yourself thinking that being mild-mannered is sorely over-rated, and that incredulity, blended with comedic irony, is infectious.

Are the stories of religion believable? Hitchens asked, "Could it be that the human race, being around for, say, 100,000 years, was given guidance by the gods in just the last 3,500?" That God silently stood by all those millennia, allowing for generations the abject misery, horror and ignorance of our species?

Then God decided, about 1500 BC, "Well, that's about right. Now I'll reveal myself to a people who seem least likely to benefit from the revelation"?

Does that awaken incredulity? Once more, they call it a "Hitch-slap" because the incredulity wakes us out of our self-imposed slumber:

Hitchens asked, "Imagine if it were only now people were trying to start the Abrahamic religions. In the face of our knowledge about the world, they wouldn't get off the ground. Few of their beliefs or claims would take hold."

Why should chronology be so spell-binding?

Morality without God

Is God necessary for morality? Instead of the mere assumption that religion promotes goodness, Hitchens -- as he had the habit -- turned the tables on us and recalled the history of religion and its horrors foisted upon humankind. I remember reading his chapters in, God is not Great, and thinking after pages of terrible examples of maleficence, "OK, OK! I get it! I get it! Religion has brought us the worst of the worst!"

I was bludgeoned by the historical facts of terror. But again, with that self-imposed slumber in mind, sometimes a cognitive assault is necessary to awaken the mind's prejudices. If God is necessary to morality, why are some of the worst examples of moral perversity perpetrated by religion?

From this, Hitchens' formulated one of his best-known challenges:

Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.



The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?



The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply.

Hitchens' point is that a moral principle can be practiced by anyone with normal mental faculties, religious or not. But if something is said that promotes wickedness unparalleled by regular morality, then it most likely comes from religion. Hitchens' "first question" continues to wait for a convincing reply.

As for the rejoinder that we should also acknowledge all the good things religion has done, Hitchens reminded us that this proves little. There are some monstrous organizations that feed the poor, etc., but this hardly sheds goodness on those organizations.

And why do you give or do good things? Is it because you fear divine punishment and hope for eternal reward? Or, is it something you do just because you know it's the right thing to do?

Coming out the Woodwork

Whatever failings in Hitchens' extensive criticisms of religion, he was always eager to debate his ideas and defend his beliefs. And he certainly had some ready takers. Problem is, some of the most vocal are only now finding the kahunas to take on Hitchens.

Alain de Botton and Camille Paglia are just two of the brazenly courageous (of a milquetoast sort) to speak of Hitchens' failures. They remind me of those spaghetti-westerns when, long after the outlaw is gone, the local town folk come storming into Main Street with squirrel guns in hand.

But, it's asked, "Didn't Hitchens do the same with Falwell?" In short, "No."

The point isn't that someone is criticizing someone now dead. It's rather that, unlike Falwell, Hitchens was always deliriously pleased to take on his critics in public. Those as well known as de Botton and Paglia would've been especially welcome.

Hitchens never backed down from a fight, and those now taking potshots against the deceased target know it. Whatever the limitations of Hitchens' arguments about religion, there's probably a reason some have waited for Hitchens' departure to show such bravery.

***

As a public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens contributed to a better, critical understanding of those beliefs thought too sacred to contest or discuss, religious and otherwise. Even in our better judgment, if we think he was wrong on some matters, the fact he challenged us on our tightly held assumptions is the earmark of a true iconoclast.

He was much more interesting than your typical intellectual because of how he drew upon his literary background, weaving irony and wit into his arguments. He was a genuine educator. He got waist-deep in philosophical matters, making them of interest to the typical citizen. The various disciplines in the sciences, philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and metaethics.

All of his qualities made his natural brilliance infectious.

While teaching my course, every week I saw seventy-five students who couldn't get enough of our comrade. We discussed his ideas, watched those who challenged him, and then felt a sort of therapy when he responded to each challenge. And belly-laughed at this numerous obscenities. We also felt sadness as we watched his life draw to a close.

Two years later he continues to be terribly missed.