Once more into the breach for Hitchens

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • June 29, 2007
{mosimage}There’s a joke about Christopher Hitchens circulating around the Internet: “What’s the difference between Christopher Hitchens and God? God doesn’t think He is Christopher Hitchens.”
As with all jokes, there’s a hint of truth and a hint of unfairness. For many of Hitchens’ critics the truth is in what they see as Hitchens’ arrogance. He is a bright, witty, literate and fierce opinionator and opponent and if you are on the losing side it is simplest to dismiss him as full of himself. For Hitchens and his allies, the unfairness is in the suggestion that he seeks godlike status simply because Hitchens is a trenchant critic of religion, God and spirituality and has been since, by his own accounting, he was nine.

Hitchens, British by birth, American by choice, is an author, essayist and journalist. He stunned the journalistic world when he turned from long time leftist to war on terror cheerleader after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Whereas his attacks on Islamofascism attracted scorn and disbelief, his assault on the idea of religion is seen as evidence that he may be returning to the fold.

That Hitchens is an atheist should be no surprise. An earlier book, Letters To A Young Contrarian, contains an entire section on the need to confront and reject religion and laid out his position clearly. His latest book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is a full blown assault in line with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, other authors of recent “God doesn’t exist” tomes. Arguably the book can be seen as smart publishing or pure opportunism. It is a litany of everything most reasonable people have said about religion for centuries or millennia.

When Hitchens goes on about corrupt, venal clergy or weak susceptible believers, your first thought might be to dismiss him of rehashing old news. That human beings can do wrong even in the name of religion is by no means an original observation. When he lists the litany of violence, destruction and mayhem that has been done in God’s name you are left thinking that you’ve read, heard and thought it before. His reminiscences of his early insight into his own atheistic stance are well written, colourful and for the most part ho-hum.

What is surprising is that in this season of “God is dead or should be” publishing, Hitchens is getting so much attention, play and exposure. Part of it is attributable to his stage presence. He is a fascinating and remarkable storyteller with an encyclopedic grasp of fact, analogy and logic. He is eager to provoke and more than willing to assert stunning positions. He is great entertainment value and willing to go to the ends of the earth for his journalism and take any podium offered to argue for his position.

But there is more to this than that.

Normally in this easily bored society of ours, if several books are published on one topic in the same year, the reaction is “been there, done that.” But not when it comes to attacks on religion. Each of the tomes published in the past 18 months has received major reviews, the authors have been the subject of numerous profiles and the books have been featured in or the focus of numerous public events: debates, lectures, discussions. It is almost enough to make one believe in the “culture war” that is so often bruited about in the United States.

There are easy explanations for the phenomenon: the 2001 attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon and the spectre of a violent religious-inspired force loose in the world intent on forcing Armageddon if possible; the sex scandals of the Roman Catholic Church and debates about human fallibility, venality and institutional corruption; the sex scandal of Evangelical minister Ted Haggerty and the charges of hypocrisy that ensued; and of course the much touted and worried about role of religious conservatives in the Bush and Harper governments. Taken together, these have all intensified a “public cynicism” about the role of religion at the personal and community level. And the reality is that the people who are the media, who organize public events and generally play the role of stimulating public discourse, are as susceptible to the growing cynicism as anyone.

What really lies at the heart of the appeal and attention of Hitchens and company is anger and, ironically, disbelief. A trope that runs through all the work is incredulity that religion still has a hold, still animates and motivates billions of people’s lives.

The irony is that cynicism about religion exhibited by these authors is animated by the same type and the same degree of fervour that fuels the most aggressive and hostile of the fundamentalist preachers. One group damns you to hell for eternity, the other consigns you forever to the corner with a dunce cap.

You can feel the metaphorical shaking as these various authors express their astonishment that despite all the evidence they have assembled people still pray, believe, go to church, ask for forgiveness from and thank God regularly. Despite their logic, their clarity and their brilliance, people still believe and still reject what the prophets of atheism preach.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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