05/03/2011 11:08 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2011

The Sad, Naive Atheism of Christopher Hitchens

Ill with cancer, outspoken "unbeliever" Christopher Hitchens was unable to appear at the American Atheist Convention, and instead sent a letter attacking the "lethal delusion" of religion. This letter was both unspeakably sad and distressingly naive.

In his missive, Hitchens equated religion with the actions and proclamations of bullies, tyrants and "nuclear-armed mullahs," all of whom promote "sinister nonsense" and carry out unspeakable crimes while claiming that God is on their side. Hitchens has done this many times before. There is nothing new in these claims and neither do they have any merit. He is not attacking religion but extremism carried out in religion's name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.

Any system of belief or action can be distorted or carried to extreme lengths. But if one washes oneself a hundred times a day, one is not discrediting soap; rather, one is raising questions about its obsessive and inappropriate use.

The sad and surprising part of the letter comes when Hitchens moves from the public to the private sphere. Facing the specter of death himself, he assures us that he has not sacrificed his principles by embracing the "false consolations of religion." Rather, he draws strength in his illness from humankind's "innate solidarity," which -- rather than religion -- is the source of both our morality and our sense of decency.

But this idea of "innate solidarity" is deeply problematic. Everywhere we look we see the exact opposite of "innate solidarity." Tribalism -- blind, unquestioning allegiance to one's group -- haunts the world; it has nothing to do with solidarity, morality or decency. Here in America, neither the right nor the left appears committed to a view of life rooted in solidarity. Conservatives preach free market capitalism and the "self-reliance" (which is mostly selfishness) that is advocated by Ayn Rand and her disciplines. Liberals emphasize doctrines of individual rights, which may be admirable but focus on individual concerns and not communal support.

As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity -- and indeed, that it is divinely implanted. Nonetheless, it is no more than a tendency, and a rather weak one at that. (The word used by Judaism is "inclination.") By itself, it is incapable of impacting our behavior in a significant way or of creating strong moral bonds. The purpose of all major religions is to cultivate and strengthen this tendency and to develop it into compassionate concern; compassion, after all, is the basis of moral thinking and the foundation of that fundamental decency to which Hitchens refers. But the point is that it is a mistake to speak of solidarity as "innate." Solidarity is not the starting point; it is the result of systems of belief and behavior that have been developed and practiced by communities of common concern -- and without question, it is religious systems of belief and religious communities that are the most effective vehicles for developing solidarity and offering compassion over time.

In claiming that our solidarity is just "there," Hitchens shows himself to be strikingly naive. He may not like the God that I worship, but it turns out that he has created a god of his own.

Hitchens is ill. I sympathize with his situation, and I wish him a speedy return to good health. It goes without saying that he is entitled to find consolation in any way that gives him strength. But since he takes upon himself the task of giving advice to others, I suggest he remember that for the bulk of humankind, consolation in the face of illness and grief comes from a solidarity that specifically emerges from religious communities, creeds, rituals and liturgies. And thank God for that.