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- DECEMBER 16, 2011
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No Better Place
An atheist meets his maker. No, make that his end
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.
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.