One of the more notable – or should I say “noted” – deaths during this year just now passing was that of polemicist Christopher Hitchens. Christened as “the Christian’s atheist” by New York Times columnist Ross Douhat, a Catholic and political conservative, he is mourned by the intelligentsia on at least three continents.
Douhat and other Christian writers have been saying that the English-born Hitchens, dead now at a young 62, was their kind of guy, almost but not quite in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden – these latter three having not been shy about professing their Christianity also insisted that they had not abandoned their intellectual commitments. Hitchens pronounced such brave efforts failures. None of the aforementioned three came close to being atheists. Hitchens, however, all but preached atheism and made his confession of it with the screen pulled all the way back that he might shout his dissent directly into the confessor’s ear.
Brilliant was Hitchens and delicious his prose. Thirsty was he, as well, as his bar tabs demonstrated. I would like at least once to have been in the same room with him drinking what he was drinking. Had I been and able to get a word edgewise during one of his storied monologues, I would have said this: “I know hundreds of clergy and members of churches who are atheists. I’ve known a bishop or two would who fall into that category of belief – or non-belief – as well. I am an atheist and said as much to the congregation I served for more than two decades, helping a number of them to discover their own atheism. “While there were some few in the pews emotionally unprepared to go that far, I was neither fired nor tried for heresy – though thanks to buttinskis external to the parish, I came close to the latter. Truth to tell, sir, I would have reveled in such a trial just as you have in your own notoriety”.
Hitchens, language maven that he was, must have known full well what an atheist is: an “a-theist,” meaning “not a theist.” Theism – at least its Jewish and Christian expressions – is philosophy of religion that, following the leads of biblical mythology, posits a deity who or which is both transcendent and immanent; is everywhere and nowhere at once; is omniscient regarding past, present and future; is accessible at all times under all circumstances through the medium known as prayer; is loving and merciful; is responsible for the entirety of all universes down to the hairs on individual heads and falling of a single sparrow. This last attribute raises the touchy question of why a sparrow living under the aegis of a loving and merciful god is not prevented from falling in the first place. Whatever. The deity of theistic imagination is believed to be ready, willing and able to alter natural circumstances, viz. to cause a woman to be delivered of an infant without her body ever having been on the receiving end of male sperm, to cause the reanimation of dead tissue (as in the “resurrection” of Jesus Christ from death) and to enable chosen human agents to cure blindness, deafness, lameness and disease. This, too, raises the loving-and-merciful-god problem as to why there are so many sick and disabled people and such little public will to minister to their suffering. Nonetheless, it says in the Bible that god is good, so my detractors have told me ad nauseam. They are right. So it does.
And? Nothing that appears in the Tanakh or the New Testament was thought up or written down any later than 120 CE –approximately 1420 years before the observations of Copernicus, 1500 before those of Galileo and 1700-plus before Darwin’s and 1785 more before Einstein’s. This is to say that theism’s day is long gone. Its remnants were finally ushered out the door with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and permanently banished by the work of astrophysicists who have been telling us for some little while now about the Big Bang that occurred around 14 billion years ago, give or take a million. If and when we pay attention to the search for the Higgs boson, for example, we can get just the briefest glimpse at what creation looked like or looks like. It looks nothing like what one can read about and typically misinterpret in Genesis 1:1-2:4.“So, sir,” I would’ve tried to say to the late Mr. Hitchens had I been able to get close enough to him, “atheists abound. They abound in the pews of every church. They are intelligent, twenty-first century people who are stuck with the poetry of ancient liturgy and liturgies composed of ancient poetry, a hymnody that keys off such poetry and – I am very sorry to say – numerous pusillanimous clergy who have not the fortitude to get themselves beyond the worn piety of theism-speak.“Furthermore, Mr. Hitchens, you were right. Their god is not good. More than that: their god does not, never did exist. He or it was a brilliant attempt on the part of the ancients to account for what could not out of their limited knowledge be accounted for. We now know better. We have known better for a long time.“The hierarchs of the church have ever been fearful of moving beyond theism because its arguments are a good fit for the command-and-control operations they run. A hierarchic system could not have the sway some of them have and use if its philosophical basis were deism or pantheism. Atheism would be impossible. So that’s part of the reason, Mr. Hitchens, that what you have made your reputation denouncing is so difficult to eradicate. That said, I would have added, “Atheism is in reality an attempt to be respectful of a rich past, to manage a conflicted present and leave something honest to an unknown future. Certainly organized religion of the generally Jewish and Christian sort is mersed in theistic language and emotion even though the philosophical principles on which it was built have crumbled like an ancient rococo ruin. In its place is a piece of contemporary architecture that reminds one of those spare sentences written by Ernest Hemingway. “You have aided us, Mr. Hitchens, in clearing away the ruins. What we’ve been trying to do, as well, is to rescue and preserve some of its artifacts to remind us of our long-ago past. We owe that to those who come after us. What’s more, we think there is no need to erase from the blackboard all our mistaken calculations, as they are a record of our blinkered efforts. Our successors in this strange enterprise of religious thought will build on our incompleteness and mistakes even as we have built on those of our forebears.”
Augustine was in a way an improvement upon Paul, Luther upon Augustine, Tillich upon Aquinas and so on. Atheism, sir, does not arise ex nihilo on its own. Who imbibes the elixir of a Michelangelo, or a John Milton or a J.S. Bach – just for example – finds the self compassed about with heart-convicting imagery. It takes some time to sort out the raw feelings provoked by and to seek a rational construction of the huge impact of such works as theirs. That a-theism may be for some a logical destination, even after the B-Minor Mass, involves a journey – a pilgrimage, even.
“Maybe some day, year, century or aeon, someone will be able to make an unassailable argument to the effect that a real god is really good. What he or she will have learned –something that we have not discovered and probably have no hope of doing so — is what will ultimately make the journey so very interesting.”
Harry T. Cook is a retired Episcopal priest whose research concentrates on first and second century Jewish and Christian texts. His forthcoming book is entitled Salvation By Works: A Humanist Manifesto and is to be released by Polebridge Press next month.