12/19/2011 05:04 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2012

Christopher Hitchens is "Not Great"

In 2007, I witnessed a debate between Christopher Hitchens and the Pultizer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, one of the foremost moral voices in America today. We should be thankful for worthy opponents who challenge us to clarify our thinking.

At that time Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great, highlighted the struggles between fanatical secularism and authoritarian religion. It is a cynical, rationalist critique of religious belief. Hitchens posits that there is a phenomenon called "religion" which is at the root of most human problems because it is consistently irrational, based in uncritical and superstitious belief, anti-sex, misogynist, intolerant, and authoritarian. He sites the Virgin birth of Jesus and the birth of Buddha from the side of his mother as proof of the consistently misogynist temper of all religions. In other words, only religion gets everything so wrong!

For the record, I have no wish to denigrate a particular human being, especially on the occasion of his death, but among the various eulogies that will be offered, I feel that his attack on all things religious deserves a response. As I observed first hand in this debate, Hitchens' debating style begins with a self-assured and urbane wit and ends with rude ad-hominem attacks stopping just short of insulting his opponent's mother.

Chris Hedges did a decent job, although in my opinion he conceded too much and too often to Mr. Hitchens. Hedges has written some of the most compelling condemnation of war and what it does to the human soul (War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning). Being a severe critic, himself, of the religious right and its political ambitions, he expressed his apprehension about institutional religion and explicit moral codes, but despite his good-hearted attempt, he was less able to represent the moral strength of everyday religion or the deeper insights of mystical spirituality.

Mr. Hitchens, on the other hand, is his own message--vitriolic, sarcastic, and aggressive. He has nothing good to say about any religion and he reserves his most vitriolic attacks for Catholicism and Islam. Whether the infallible pronouncements of Popes, or the fatwas of Al Azhar, religious propositions are presented as items that no thinking person could possibly take seriously.

Furthermore, according to Hitchens, all religious scriptures are fraudulent, because they were written by human beings who, he wants to remind us, are barely more intelligent than chimpanzees. Evil must be confronted with firm force, not with love. Suicide bombers are the most heinous criminals in today's world. Muslim fanatics simply want to kill us all because their vile religion teaches that all unbelievers should be killed. There is no context to be considered for these manifestations of evil; they are simply the inevitable outcome of religious belief. And these assertions come from someone who has been an apologist for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In presenting the secular rationalist versus the religious fanatic, he obscures the fact that the greatest slaughters of human history, by far, were not the result of religious wars, but the result of secular or non-religious ideologies: Stalin, Hitler, Mao slaughtered more human beings than all the religious wars of history by a ten fold factor.

Hitchens' verbal weaponry is formidable, and sometimes even entertaining. Much of what he criticizes deserves criticism, but he conflates the excesses and abuses of authoritarian religion with the whole spiritual enterprise, because he is essentially clueless about the spiritual dimension of human experience. He offers, instead, a picture of human endeavor that amounts to enjoying your martini and not allowing yourself to be bored by the idiots trying to tell you what God does and doesn't want you to do. Never does he admit to anything noble, virtuous, or beautiful in faith. Never does he exalt anything but the critical mind.

During the debate Christopher Hitchens kept offering a challenge to Chris Hedges and to the audience: Show me one moral act undertaken by a religious person that could not have been done by someone who doesn't believe in God. The challenge went unanswered by Mr. Hedges and understandably by the audience of 800, since there was no microphone for any audience member to counter the interruptions and insults of Mr. Hitchens.

I would like to take up that challenge. For starters, I recall something Rev. Charles Gibbs, Director of the United Religions Initiative, said: "Go anywhere in the world, as far down the dirt roads into those corners of the world where there is no civil administration and no government aid, go to the poorest of the poor and you will find there people of faith working to help the helpless and forgotten." You will not find armchair intellectuals there. You will not find people inspired by Bertrand Russell, or Voltaire, or Christopher Hitchens helping out.

On another note, recent studies of who gives and why reveal that religious believers from the American Midwest give as much in charity as the liberal population of San Francisco. However, the Mid-Westerners had a far lower per capita income and thus they were shown to be giving nearly twice as much per capita as their Bay Area counterparts. If you are thinking that the Mid-Westerners were merely giving to support their own congregations, wrong. In every category of giving, including giving to non-religious civic organizations, giving blood, and even allowing people to break in ahead of them on line, the religious Mid-Westerners outdid their secular humanist and New-Age counterparts in San Francisco. A liberal Bay Area resident like myself cannot but be chagrined and humbled by this report. The simple facts seem to show: the religious are more generous than the non-religious.

While Hitchens' "God is Not Great Philosophy" could be challenged from the perspective of institutional religion, and even if we were to accept his proposition that an atheist can in some cases take a moral stand equivalent to a person of faith, a more effective challenge could come from a higher metaphysical perspective.

The God of the mystic is not necessarily the God of sectarian religion. The mystical conception of Divinity goes beyond the narrow sectarian conceptions of God that rule in some religious circles. The Divine Creative Power, from a mystical perspective, is that which has created human nature in its own image, imbuing all human beings, not just religious believers, with a capacity to act selflessly and generously, to follow impulses other than one's own self-interest, and that this tendency is innate, or latent, in the human condition itself.

Therefore, human virtue, whether it is rationalized by religious belief or not, is essentially inspired by the Divine Compassion inherent in existence. Mercy and Compassion are intrinsic to the universe and thus they are experienced in the interior spiritual life of every human being unless they are obscured by some other pathology or conditioning.

Hitchens seemed to be oblivious to the miraculous interiority of the human being through which we experience the sacredness of life. This interiority is the inexplicable endowment of our humanness. It is this presence, which is not the outcome of rational ethics or conscious decision that is the mystery of Life. Yes, it is a conception of the Divine that transcends much of sectarian "orthodox" religious belief.

Furthermore, it is spiritual practice and the contemplative dimension of experience that perfects this inner possibility. The spiritual journey is a journey in which the individual human being overcomes all the fragmenting and dispersing tendencies of the human ego, all the contradictory impulses that weaken the soul. The spiritual project is a movement toward inner coherence around a deep center which is the spiritual heart, and this heart is the portal to the Infinite. And the dimensionless point inherent in every human being (whatever their professed beliefs), is the point of access for courage, wisdom, selfless service, and love. If one admits this, one admits that there is a spiritual reality that somehow is intrinsic to our human nature.

Christopher Hitchens presented a world in which evil is external to ourselves and present, above all, in the religious mentality. For him it came down to the rational unbelievers versus a religious "them." He said, don't tell me to love my enemies; what my enemies need are to be confronted with force, have their weapons seized and their assets impounded. He spoke as if religious and spiritual people have never heard of or are uninterested in law and justice, and he neglects the possibility of a justice without vindictiveness.

Within each human being are two contradictory tendencies: one is toward an egoism that denies others justice, rationalizes privilege, and contends that the ends I favor justify whatever means are necessary to achieve them. These egoistic tendencies can result in exploitation, oppression, and aggression. This egoism can contaminate religion as much as politics or any field of human endeavor. The "evil" of egoism is not out there, but within ourselves. As long as we deny that, we will unconsciously project it onto the outer world and the battles will continue to rage.

There is another tendency inherent in human nature: to feel the sacredness of all life and act accordingly, to recognize and therefore love "others" as "ourselves." That there is such a capacity within the human heart must be discovered by introspection, self-observation, and by true contemplation. We must ask ourselves: on what in my human experience do I place the highest value? Do I want to explore the dimensions of the human heart? Do I wish to consciously experience my own conscience, loving relationships, and connection to a spiritual source of sustenance? Or is the purpose of life to further my own personal pleasure, satisfaction, and security by whatever means possible--by further consumption, competition, support for institutional violence, and denial of the consequences of my actions?

This is the battle being waged to an unprecedented extent in the heart of humanity in the 21st century. We are living through a time when the contradictions inherent in both religious and political systems are rising to the surface of consciousness. Religious superstition and authoritarianism deserve to be honestly confronted, as do the secular and materialist ideologies that accommodate injustice and exploitation.

I thank Christopher Hitchens for helping to clarify our own thinking on all the matters we hold precious. While we can credit him for some degree of intellectual honesty in confronting the hypocrisies and irrationalities that govern so much of public life, religious and non-religious, Christopher Hitchens, in the end, could not offer a vision of true humanness because he dwelled in the cynical faculties of the mind without being adequately informed by the positive wisdom of the heart. May his example be instructive to us, nevertheless.