You can’t read an obituary of Christopher Hitchens without being reminded of his best-selling atheism. And the more you think about it, the more you have to wonder what all the fuss was about. He died nobly, writing about Chesterton in the very last stages of his struggle with esophogal cancer, and renouncing any last-minute bet on Pascal’s cagy position.
Still, what are we to learn from Hitchens’s atheism? That it’s irrational to believe in God because anything that can be explained by reference to this prime mover can be more easily and elegantly explained by science—or by the application of reason? That God is not good because religion, unlike science, poisons everything?
Try this as an answer. Reason is no good, either, because it has poisoned all the ways we think, as any sentient reader of The Dialectic of Enlightenment or “Violence and Metaphysics” would tell you. Or this. Science is worse than reason or religion because its mechanical armature has not just disenchanted the universe, it has poisoned—literally—everything on this earth, including the soil and the air.
You might as well say that human beings are by their very nature evil because they can’t do without either faith or reason in trying to imagine what is good. Do you think you can talk them out of one or the other by making it an either/or choice? Do you think that the human condition—being divided up in time, or becoming a problem to oneself, as Augustine famously put it—can be addressed by relying on either faith or reason?
Of course you don’t think that. Because you know that the history of the human species is impossible to imagine in the absence of Gods. There’s never been a civilization without them, because there’s never been a civilization without stories, without mythical or fictional or pictorial templates of behavior that narrate the future as well as the past, telling us how to live, not just how we have, in fact, lived. Gods eventually become monsters—that’s one way to understand what Weber called “rationalization”—but neither comes to life without stories that lead us beyond what we already know about the world.
In this sense, religion poisons everything to the same extent that art does, by reminding us that we try to make our lives durable and significant—we tell stories, we build monuments, we recite catechisms, we collect things, we write poetry, we draw pictures, we fall in love—because we know that death shadows us all the days of these lives. Unlike animals, we know we’re going to die, and so we’re always making preparations for an inevitable but untimely end.
Railing against God or religion is, therefore, something like protesting against human nature, evil or not. It’s something like denouncing the extravagance and cruelty of art, as the Philistines have always done. It’s a mere pious wish that things should be better, or at least a great deal more tidy—that people should be more rational, more like us educated Oxbridge, Ivy League types.
What, then? We should accredit the evangelical Christians and the Islamists? No, we merely have to acknowledge that a religiously-based belief in immortality has taught us important lessons we can’t forget.
Here I will cite only the most obvious. If you know that you cannot meet your immortal maker until you die, no matter how many texts or practices you master in this life, with this body and mind, you can love your neighbor as yourself—you’ll be less distracted by life after death, more interested in what comes before. You’ll be able to ask Whitman’s question: “Why should I love God better than this day?”
In other words, you don’t want to be immortal, like God, because you know you’ll then be disembodied, a mere spirit, just skimming the surface of real life—like an angel in love, like Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). You don’t want to see your way beyond this tedious world with all its tiresome, almost rural idiocy, because your global intentions and your local affections can’t become material or actionable in the hereafter.
Big science surrounds us, superheroes are among us, but we won’t get out alive. Maybe the vampires will survive the fire next time. The rest of us will be dead, sooner or later, and that is a good thing, because the uniquely human knowledge of impending death—we’re all waiting to die, we just don’t know how it will happen—keeps us thinking about what should endure when we’re gone. If you’re immortal, you can’t care that much about what will last among human beings because you know all of it will decay, and you’ll be there to watch it die. If you’re not immortal, these things matter.
Ross Douthat tells a story about Christopher Hitchens this morning in his regular Sunday column for the New York Times: “[At] a Washington dinner party two years ago, he cornered me in the pantry and insisted on having a long argument about the Gospel narratives. The point he was particularly eager to make was this: ‘Suppose Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead—what would that prove, anyway?”
Douthat tells the story to suggest that atheism “can become as self-defended as any religious dogma.” Sure. For me the moral of the story is that Hitchens, God bless him, wasn’t interested in life after death. But that lack of interest in the hereafter is precisely what a belief in God, an understanding of immortality, has taught millions of people over many millennia. At any rate it’s what my study of this belief has taught me.
So when Douthat reaches for Philip Larkin in the hope of redeeming the wayward soul of our most obstreperous atheist, I have to wonder, once again, what all the fuss is about: “When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade—that ‘death is no different whined at, than withstood.’”
Really? Did atheism ever appear unclothed by stories of redemption through revolution? Could atheists have wasted any more resources than the true believers who ruled the world until the nineteenth century? And what’s so terrible about Larkin’s conclusion? Listen to these earlier stanzas:
“Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels
“Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says
No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with . . . .”
Not to be anywhere, no touch or taste or smell—this is to be disembodied, to be something other than human. The very thought of it will keep you awake, aware of this life, this body, this time, and this place. Call it death or immortality. Generally speaking, a belief in God teaches you that wanting either is a mistake. You can’t say the same thing about atheism.
James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University. He writes at History News Network, from where this article is reprinted.