Friday, December 16, 2011

- Hitchens RIP And A Short Note On Atheism

Christopher Hitches, famous for his thoughtful and articulate criticisms of religion and faith in an afterlife, has died of cancer. Most of the notices I’ve read have wished him a ‘glorious surprise’. Although I don’t know that my meager level of faith justifies it, I see no harm in wishing him the same. I didn’t know him at all – never met him. But the people I know who did all spoke well of him, even while disagreeing vehemently with his ideas.

I personally, am not very religious. I’m a Roman Catholic, but not a very good one. That’s more because I have such a big problem being a ‘joiner’ than any specific reservations about the church. In fact, I’m a fairly ardent supporter of the Church of Rome in principle, if not in actual practice. A civilization should have it’s guardians of tradition, and in the west I think the Roman Church has filled that role quite well.

Most of the self declared Atheist I know find that concept very offensive, and are quick to raise the recent sexual scandals or a vague reference to the crusades as a counterpoint. But most of them don’t really understand either of those events in context. The whole point of religion is to set a moral guide post for civilization as a whole. Any religion, all religions, are a means of communicating the principle of what is right and what is wrong, to subsequent generations. And while those examples may provide an example of specific people disregarding the morality of Christianity, neither of them invalidates the Christian moral ethic in any way.

The sexual scandals were sins of men. It’s true the sins were committed by members of the church, but the institution of the church made it clear that it didn’t approve. When a policeman takes a bribe we don’t declare all police departments invalid. Not even if the person taking the bribe was a person of power an influence in the force. What’s more, we don’t reject the concept of law, crime and punishment. In other words, we blame the individual for the sin, not the institution. That’s how it works in the west.

As for the crusades, they only look bad in the post-colonial light of the modern western university. Taken in proper historical context they really don’t seem such a great sin at all. Yes, people died, and many individual sins were probably committed between here and there. But I would venture to speculate that there were no more (as a percentage) than the sins committed in ‘good wars’ that post colonial western intellectuals approve of. The animosity that the modern western university has to Christian institutions is certainly well known. So all their criticisms need to be viewed in that context, particularly those pertaining to history where their propensity for applying modern standard to ancient events is well known.

Ask your average self described Atheist, and they’ll tell you that they reject Christianity completely. But ask them if they think killing someone (as an example) is a moral act and they will unambiguously say no. On the other hand a devout Muslim, would answer the same question as ‘maybe’, since there are lots of circumstances where killing someone under Muslim morality is perfectly fine.

My point is, someone who calls themselves an atheist is usually someone who has rejected the mysticism of western religion but continued to embrace the morality of it. But the morality is the meat of the message, the mysticism is really just a tool used to communicate it. So in that way I don’t think they are quite as ‘non-believing’, as they like to present themselves. In most cases I think they simply don’t realize the role that faith plays in the lives of every human. They are like fish who have declared themselves free from the pernicious effects of drinking water. It never occurs to them that the fluid that surrounds them in every direction is the very same stuff.

It’s very tough to establish an institution of any kind and make it last as long as the Church of Rome has. Simply being able to communicate the same moral message to the profoundly changing masses over that long a time frame is testimony to the strength of it. But that isn’t to say that the means of communication hasn’t been profoundly changed between its beginning and now. In many circles, the parables and mysticism that were so effective at spreading the moral code in the late Roman Empire are now discarded as ‘spaghetti monster’ nonsense. But if you query those very same people about their moral code, it’s clear the message has been received by all but a very few of them – even as they utterly reject the old means of its communication. Go figure.

In my experience, the vast majority of Atheists are so consumed with themselves that it never occurs to them that their personal moral code is anything but a permanent fixture of the universe. They don’t realize its origins or the mechanism by which it was transmitted to them. What’s more, it never occurs to them that someone who has a difference with their moral code, your devout Muslim for example might see it any other way. In other words, in most cases atheism is less about not believing, and more about not thinking.

But one could never say that about Christopher Hitches. If absolutely nothing else he was thoughtful and articulate. But that isn’t to say that this thinking wasn’t deeply flawed. He was a socialist, so his attempts at intellectual consistency can’t really be faulted. So rather than saying his fault was a lack of depth like so many Atheists, I’d say his fault was one of perspective. The atheist, even someone like Hitchens, believes that his universe begins and ends with his experience of it; while the view of the faithful, even someone who is poor a practitioner as me, has more continuity across time than that.

It’s not just the concept of an afterlife that gives solace to the believer, but the idea of playing a small part in something more permanent and continuous than ourselves. The society we build by applying our moral code to the game theory of human relationships outlasts us. And when we consider the thought of our children or grandchildren growing up and raising families long after our departure, while subscribing to the same beliefs about right and wrong, we can get comfort from it.

But if honest about it, the true Atheist is denied that comfort. Their moral code can be seen only as something to be utterly reinvented both by them, and by the next and every subsequent generation. If throwing out the baby and the bathwater is the right thing to do for them, then they shouldn’t be surprised when those that follow their example do the same with their morality however it's defined. In that constant state of reinvention of the ‘truth’, the connection between the present and both the past and future, is totally severed.

Atheist usually respond to this by claiming that theirs is a belief only in the objective and permanently verifiable. They claim their view is the scientific method applied to the full human condition. But their moral differences to the aforementioned pious Muslim show the falsehood of that statement. Your western Atheist will oppose honor killing as an example, not for issues of game theory where it works out just fine, but for reasons of western morality. They think its wrong – even if they can’t adequately explain exactly why exactly they feel that way. The point is, they believe the moral message of Christianity, even as they reject the messenger. Even as they dispute the very existence of the message, they continue to believe it.

Hitchens was a clever and thoughtful man, and I wish nothing but peace and comfort to those who feel his loss. Sometimes having a strong opponent makes you a better combatant. And in that way I’m sure his efforts dramatically improved the modern discourse on the role of faith in society. In that way we are all better for his having passed this way. Even if it may not be in a way that he intended.


ikaika said...

Excellent essay on the topic.

In a recent debate with an espoused Devout Atheist, I was informed of his taking offense to particular public celebrations.

I reminded him, that his empirical, scientific disbelief would prevent him from asserting an emotional response to what he has ruled as irrational and unscientific.

It would be the equivilent of demanding the Three Stooges be held to represent the laws of physics and biological response, otherwise the joy in slap-stick is nothing more than provocation to people that don't like the Three Stooges.

it confirms that the neo-atheists of the 21st century are bitterly clinging to a form of anti-religion complete with morality code and demands for establishment protection.

oy vei

Anonymous said...

Well done essay.

Mark said...

Oh, come on, Tom, that was terrible. You write as if Hitchens didn't amply refute (let alone mention) all these points of yours. These are the tired cliches and non-sequiturs that religious apologists always bring up in the first five minutes of any discussion of the subject.

It was humanity's (or the west's) emancipation from these great guardians of tradition and morality (and tithe)--and of the supposedly divinely-derived power of their agents and potentates--that finally allowed our forbears to painstakingly progress from feudalism and benightedness and develop societies in which freedom of thought and of enterprise have allowed individuals to vastly increase our wealth, well-being, and knowledge of both ourselves and nature.

Tom said...

If he refuted my point Mark then you must have missed it as well. You certainly didn't mention it.

We both know (and so does ever reader) that you're totally ignoring my point. That's OK with me actually; I don't have the bandwidth right now to put too much time into a discussion of this topic. But you might want to hold off on declaring victory until you say something (anything) toward the issue I raised.

As an example, I'd be interested in hearing a criticism of honor killing that doesn't depend completely on the western critic's belief in Christian morality.

As a catholic, (as I've said... a very bad catholic) I have no problem basing my criticism of it on the moral code defended by the catholic (and every other Christian) church. But if you've discarded that moral code as any intellectually consistent Atheist would, then upon what do you base your criticism?

Or do you simply say that honor killing is morally OK? I suppose that would be intellectually consistent too. Is that it Mark? Are Atheists unable to take a side on the issue of honor killing? To be fair, I don’t mean to imply that they approve of it simply because they can’t find a valid reason to call it ‘bad’. But a position like that does leave you wondering what else they can’t say.