This is the seventh yahrzeit (if one can accurately use the term) of Christopher Hitchens – pundit, public intellectual, pain in the butt, and notorious atheist.
I miss “Hitch,” as he was affectionately called. Not because I often agreed with him, which I did not.
No – I miss him because he was interesting, fun, and maddening. More than that: Hitch loved ideas, and we live in a time when there seems to be a shortage of ideas.
More than even that: I sometimes wonder what Hitch would be saying about the world today.
For the purposes of my remembrance of Hitch, let me remind you of a particular trend in American life that occurred about ten years ago. Hitch was one of its principle drivers, though he was not its only driver.
I am referring to his famous book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Hitch called organized religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, alllied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
He called for humanity to “escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection … to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”
To mark Hitchens’ yahrzeit, I decided re-skim his book.
This is what I learned — or re-learned.
Hitch was a very smart man. He was a very intellectual man, a very clever person, a charming conversationalist who was apparently a lot of fun to hang out with and to share a drink with. Frankly, I would have loved to have had that opportunity.
But, for someone who wrote a best-selling book deriding religious faith, it is amazing how little he knew, and how superficially he had studied.
Yes, he browsed through the Bible — enough to have found the passages that are offensive and/or irrational. But, beyond the Bible? No. Any works of theology? No.
Any encounter with, say, Maimonides to see how the great thinker might have responded to some of Hitchens’ complaints? No.
It is as if someone who has never driven a car, and has never changed oil, chose to write a book on auto mechanics.
Let me focus on one topic that Hitchens raised. You will not be surprised to know that it is the most popular anti-religion allegation.
It is that religion is the source of war and violence in our world. When you consider that Hitchens wrote his book in the shadow of September 11, 2001, it is easy to see how he could have moved in that direction.
How do I respond to this allegation? Certainly without defensiveness. He is right. Religion had been the source of much violence and many wars — though in a great many cases, religion was but the pretext for violence — the real reasons often being economics and land grabbing.
However, if I were to simply look at the twentieth century, I would have to come up with the following grisly body count. Let me quote David Wolpe, who knew Hitch and nevertheless often rose up to debate him.
“The following staggering numbers of those killed are the results of societies, in each and every case, where religion was alternately persecuted, outlawed, or widely reviled:
20 million in the Soviet Union.
65 million in the People’s Republic of China.
1 million in Viet Nam.
2 million in Korea.
2 million in Cambodia.
1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe.
The sobering truth: Atheistic regimes are far less tolerant than theistic regimes, and at least since the French Revolution, are far more likely to engage in large scale murder and genocide.
Hitchens could have viewed religion a different way.
He could have followed the path of a new book — In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism by Scott A. Shay. Shay believes that we can summarize both religion and the moral life by citing only the first three of the Ten Commandments: I am God. Don’t have false gods. Don’t take the name of God in vain — by which he means, don’t do terrible things and ascribe them to God or religion.
He quotes Cardinal Timothy Dolan:
When atheists say, “you know organized religion has been the cause of some of the greatest horrors in the history of humanity,” we need to respond, mea culpa. I am afraid they are right. But we can add it has also been the cause of some of the greatest philanthropy and some of the greatest affirmation of human progress and charity and works of justice to humanity.
When I think of Hitchens, and his devout godlessness, I think of how Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, believed that atheism was actually useful.
Atheism has a right to existence, for it digests the impurities which attach to faith when true knowledge and worship of God are lacking. God wants us to uproot that dross which cuts people off from the true light of God. Upon the rubble heaps which are raised by the “denial of God,” the lofty knowledge of God shall built its temple.
In other words: when people say that they don’t believe in God, we would do well to unpack exactly what they mean by “God.” In my experience, when people report their atheism to me, their view of God is rather literal, childlike, and quite at odds with what most sophisticated thinkers have thought.
Quite often, when people say they don’t believe in God, I respond with: “Maybe you haven’t met the right god yet.”
God doesn’t need our defense — only our witnessing, only our testimony through lives well lived, and awe properly construed, and memories of moments filled with the divine presence.
In the end, I recall the words of the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner. “God is. We do.”
Which I choose to interpret as: “Because God is…..this is what we must do.”
Sounds like a plan.