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JAMES TARANTO ON CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

December 16, 2011

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No Better Place

An atheist meets his maker. No, make that his end

By JAMES TARANTO

All we really needed to know about atheism we learned in kindergarten. We grew up in a nonreligious household with unobservant parents of dissimilar backgrounds. We celebrated Christmas with a tree and gifts but no religious overtones. The concepts of God and religion were completely unknown to us before we started school.

For kindergarten and first grade we attended a Montessori school. It wasn’t a religious school, but since it was private, it was unaffected by Abingdon School District v. Schempp . Part of the day’s routine was an anodyne prayer before lunch. We didn’t understand the ritual and thus didn’t participate–until a classmate caught us and ratted us out to the teacher, who told us we had to pray. Being an obedient little boy, we did.

We started asking our fellow pupils to explain, and their answers were unsatisfactory: “God is everywhere.” “Why can’t I see him?” “He’s behind you now.” In defense of our unsophisticated peers, they were 5 at the time. In our own defense, we were also 5. The woeful inadequacy of their apologetics prompted us to become a militant atheist.

[botwt1216] Getty ImagesChristopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Although we never became religious, by our late teens we had concluded that it was silly to be a militant atheist. Why go around proselytizing about what you don’t believe in? Many years later, in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, we debated Christopher Hitchens–who remained a militant atheist until his death yesterday at 62–on the subject of the “religious right” in America. Hitchens was one of the most formidable writers we have known, so it was our good fortune that his contribution was not his finest work.

We’ll admit to once feeling a twinge of envy for Hitchens. When we were 13 or so, we told a friend we wanted one day to write a book about why we didn’t believe in God. (Yes, we were a bit of a nerd at that age.) By adulthood, the thought seemed ridiculous. But Hitchens must have made millions with his 2007 best-seller, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” One could be forgiven for asking: If you’re so smart, Taranto, how come you’re not Hitch?

One of Hitchens’s last pieces of writing was his column for next month’s Vanity Fair, in which he reflected on the experience of terminal illness:

Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

That aphorism is attributed to the 19th-century German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, who also said “God is dead.” Hitchens’s essay led Mark Judge of The Daily Caller to speculate last week that a deathbed conversion might have been in the offing:

Rejecting one of the more sophomoric of Nietzsche’s aphorisms may seem small, but out of such moments are great conversions made. . . . Perhaps Hitchens’s admission that Nietzsche might have been wrong, even about something small, will lead him to a healthy curiosity about Christianity.

We can’t tell if Judge was being serious or merely deadpan. If the former, he makes about as much sense as our kindergarten classmates did. We’ve never heard of anyone who believes every word Nietzsche wrote is true. Having read a fair amount of Nietzsche’s bracing but bewildering prose, we’re not sure it’s even possible to hold such a belief.

Anyway, we’ve heard no reports that Hitchens changed his mind about God in the former’s final week. As for Nietzsche, let’s take one last look at that aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Sadly, for Hitchens its logic is once again intact.

From → ATHEISM

3 Comments
  1. I like the bumper stickers and T-Shirts that say:

    Nietzsche: “God is dead.”

    God: “Nietzsche is dead.”

    Christopher Hitchens is now included in that sad club of non believers. Hopefully he wanted God’s forgiveness before the final sentencing…. we can only hope and pray, not only for Hitchens, but for all non believers.

  2. abyssum permalink

    Curt,

    Bravo!

    I love it: “Logic isn’t nothing; it is an image of the Logos!”

    - Abyssum

  3. Christopher Hitchens challenged the rationality of religion and especially the Christian religion. And I fear that we are living in age when many people, including Roman Catholics, think that if anything is challenged, it must be weak in some way. Being challenged is not a sign of weakness. But many people think so. I don’t know how else to explain why so many Catholics tell me that they feel that the Catholic faith is on “shaky ground” as far as rationality is concerned and that the only course of action is to surrender to a kind of fideism.

    We live in an age when science is idolized. This is dangerous for a number of reasons beyond idolatry. In the first place, there is no such thing as science with a capital S. There are sciences and there are scientists. There is no single person who speaks for science. In this, so-called science is like the Moslem and Protestant faiths: it has no ultimate Magisterium that can speak for all its members. Note this well: people who claim to speak for science are usually not scientists.

    In spite of the loud pronouncements of dilettantes like Mr. Hitchens, the quiet truth is that there is no scientific proof of the non-existence of God or the non-existence of the human soul or the non-existence of the supernatural. Absolutely none. There is no deductive proof of any of these beliefs. There are no inductive or reductive proofs either. There are Christian mathematicians, Christian physicists, Christian chemists, Christian biologists. Science has not settled any theological issue. It doesn’t even try to.

    The great scientific theories have nothing to say about God, the soul or the supernatural. Modern Atomic Theory says nothing on this subject. Nor does Kinetic Molecular Theory, the Germ Theory of Disease, Big Bang Theory, Gravity Theory, Cell Theory, Plate Tectonic Theory, Relativity Theory, Quantum Theory, String Theory or Unified Field Theory. The only scientific theory which remotely challenges Christian faith is Evolutionary Theory. And it should be said quite clearly that Evolutionary Theory [it is actually many opposed theories] does not disprove the existence of God, the soul or the supernatural. There are Christian and Catholic biologists.

    I have spoken to Christians who have told me that given the advances in neurology, that it is now impossible to believe in the human soul. I find nothing in neurology which even remotely disproves the existence of the human soul. A Canadian neurologist named Wilder Penfield attempted to disprove the existence of the human soul and ended up believing in it. Since the human brain feels no pain, he stimulated [with an electrode] various parts of the cerebral cortex while patients were conscious. He did this in an attempt to find a cure for epilepsy. He was able to converse with patients while he was doing this. He asked patients to raise their arms and they did. He also stimulated certain parts of the brain which caused his patients to raise their arms. But interestingly, when asked, the patients denied “voluntarily” raising their arms and were quite aware that they were being forced to do so against their will: “I did not raise my arms that time. They went up by themselves.” Doctor Penfield became aware that there was an “I” not identical with the brain, an “I” that was aware of being forced by electrodes to do things against its will. While it would be foolhardy to say this is a proof of the human soul, it would be equally foolhardy to claim that it has been proved that there is no human soul and just a brain. Neurology as a science is in its infancy.

    One thing that every religious teacher, every philosopher and every scientist must face eventually is death. Like Mr. Hitchens, death silences everyone. It silenced the historical Buddha and Karl Marx. It silenced Mohammed and Charles Darwin. It silenced Nietzsche and Mr. Hitchens. If one looks in history for any exception to this, one only finds Jesus of Nazareth. Even if one is not a Christian, even if one was a visitor from another planet, that would be something interesting. Here is this historical phenomena that occurred at a point in history and spread globally with the exploration of the whole planet. “Something” happened in human history and news of it spread along with the planetization of the whole earth. A person can say he is indifferent to eternal life. But I wonder if one can really be indifferent about such a thing. Did Mr. Hitchens really want to die? The great thinker Pascal noted that what surprised him most was not that people could not believe in Christianity, but that it seemed like some people wanted it to be false? Why would a person want to believe that death has the last word? Why would a person want to believe that reality is meaningless and that there is no hope in life? I think that such an attitude is self-contradictory. It is like saying there is no truth but that I am being truthful about that fact. Or it is like saying: accept the meaninglessness and ignobility of life because such acceptance is meaningful and noble. If people like Mr. Hitchens were not leading people astray, it would just be tragic. But militant atheists are assaulting the faith of people and especially the young [who are so impressionable]. Are militant atheists really just harmless and blameless? Only God can judge.

    There is nothing “shaky” about logic. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It does not take the place of supernatural faith or scientific empiricism. But it isn’t nothing. And it is an image of the Logos in both science and faith. Catholics should not be afraid of science or logic.

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