Tue 21st Oct 2014 | Last updated: Tue 21st Oct 2014 at 06:37am

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Christopher Hitchens set a challenge for Catholics

We must answer the charges that the late polemicist brought against religion

By on Thursday, 5 January 2012

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair: last year they debated whether religion was a force for good in the world (courtesy of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation)

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair: last year they debated whether religion was a force for good in the world (courtesy of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation)

One can learn much about the current state of religious and secular opinion, and the confidence of their exponents, from responses to the death of Christopher Hitchens. Among Christian commentators it is hard not to sense strains of shaky self-righteousness in expressions of satisfaction that he might now recognise the reality of God. Among secularists, meanwhile, there is evident frustration at his compromising his assault on religion by siding with some Christian critics of Islam, and in being less that wholly committed to current liberal agendas, for example on health (smoking and drinking) and equality issues (women and the environment).

In fact, Hitchens’s position on religions was straightforward: insofar as they postulate or assume the existence of supernatural realities they are all equally false, and to the extent that they propose a link between belief and conduct they are all potentially threatening. As he put it, on more than one occasion: “They are all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.”

The difference among them, in his view, is that the greatest actual threat comes from Islam. This has two aspects: one directed against the liberal, secular West and the other against Israel. Hitchens was fond of saying that all that stands between the victory of Muslim theocracy and the freedom of the secular West are the 82nd and 101st US airborne divisions. The remark was characteristically provocative, making it clear that he thought that the contest with religion may ultimately be a matter of armed force, and that, despite their own protests to the contrary, the western powers are involved in a military campaign against Islam. The problem for his fellow secular liberals is that he welcomed such a campaign and was happy to describe it as a “crusade”.

Such opinions were expressed in a manner that was at times languid and occasionally urgent, but never faltering. His fluency made him a compelling speaker to listen to, but it also raised a question: was his an acute analytical mind, dissecting and composing reasoned arguments, or was he a rhetorician sustaining a mellifluous but often merely associative flow of words? Doubtless the truth lies between these, but I think it moved steadily closer to the latter.

As I write, I have in front of me a copy of God Is Not Great open at the title page on which is inscribed: “To John Haldane, well met in Oxford, Christopher Hitchens.” The occasion to which this refers is a debate we had in the university’s Sheldonian Theatre in 2010 on “Secularism and Faith in the Public Square”. One notable feature of the occasion and the commentaries following it was the presence in force of secular humanists, for whom there is no serious question but that religion is false and that the only attitude to take to it is denigration. To such people Hitchens was a hero and the question of analysis and argument is of little interest. In this respect they are the counterparts of evangelical fideists for whom the only task in debate with religious sceptics is conversion or defeat.

Interestingly, Martin Amis, Hitchens’s closest friend and occasional rival, is disposed to agnosticism, rejecting the certainties of believers and unbelievers in favour of a questioning attitude to the universe and human existence. I think that in his heart Hitchens recognised that this was the position to which such “philosophical” reflection as he might ever have practised should have taken him. Had it done so he would have been more open to serious, probing discussion. But he was not, and that I think indicated a certain intellectual dishonesty. Like believers who keep themselves busy in social causes or ornate liturgies and make these the locus of their religion, Hitchens was unwilling to face the deepest questions or was in flight from them. In his case, I think this had to do with the practice of polemical journalism, and later public speaking, and with the success and popular following these brought him.

I first read and admired his work in the 1980s and enjoyed his study of Anglo-American political and cultural relationships, Blood, Class and Nostalgia. But by stages (and probably from the beginning) he showed an undisciplined mind and one that required the reactions of an audience. Discursive interaction is older than Socrates but in the latter it took the form of probing and intricate argument. Hitchens was less interested in dialogue than theatrical monologue accompanied by cheers or jeers, and he needed both to maintain him. Also, he did not open himself to serious intellectual questioning. Indeed, in this regard his vice was the common one among the once precociously bright, namely mental laziness.

Unquestionably, however, some believers will feel that with his passing one source of unwelcome challenge is gone. I don’t think he will be easily replaced in the front line of anti-religious polemics, not least because he was undeniably attractive in a louche, dandyish, sharp-witted way. Yet rather than speak piously about the fate of his soul or dismissively of him as another “atheist fundamentalist” (which he was not), we would do well to consider why religion had no appeal for him and why unqualified hostility to it is a growing phenomenon.

Hitchens is a case worth studying. He is more interesting than Dawkins because evidently more psychologically complex and humanly engaging. If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong? Or, put another way, what can we learn from his attitude about how to understand our own religious claims and about how our lives reflect them? Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is your grace and your holiness?”

This challenge has particular force against those who downplay human sinfulness and the extent of depravity. Not until we have taken seriously the idea that the effects of sin and ongoing sinfulness corrupt the soul will we be in a position to fashion an effective counter to the charges Hitchens brought against Catholicism and Christianity more generally. It will not be to say that we are better than he claimed. Rather, we need to explain effectively our failings and those of all humanity in terms of a shared supernatural identity. To which we might add, adapting a saying of Wilde’s, whose style of wit Hitchens sometimes echoed: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking to heaven in hope of salvation.”

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews and was recently re-appointed by Pope Benedict as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture

  • Brian A. Cook

    Thank you, Professor Haldane.  Thank you very much. 

  • Colleen

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.

  • theroadmaster

    Catholicism needs to be like the tensile steel in swords fashioned in red-hot temperatures and able to withstand the strident polemical arguments which contain within them pertinent points which probe into the core claims of Religious belief.  Christopher Hitchens despite his sometimes lax disregard for a profound self-interrogation of his own viewpoints, was a worthy and articulate opponent who John Haldane rightly states was no knee-jerk fundamentalist atheist in the Dawkins mold.  I think that Mr Haldane is also correct to assert that Hitchens’ natural habitat would have been on the potential fertile ground of thinking agnosticism/unbelief which sought to engage with and probe the doctrines and practices of Christianity and other Religions on a very serious level.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Hitchens poses a psychological as well as a moral challenge to religion. They might amount to the same: he may psychologically have been repelled by religion because he was morally repelled by religion. But given Prof. Haldane’s plausible identification of a character flaw in Hitchens (particularly the vanity of needing to be cheered by the crowd) he may be a symptom of a twofold explanation of a modern rejection of the Church: one based on a shaky individualism that needs to be buoyed up by constant busyness, including constant public posturing; and one, rather better directed, which ought to prompt Catholics to the sort of reflection on sinfulness suggested in the article.

  • Charles Martel

    Dear Dr Haldane,
    There is one thing in your piece I found quite bizarre – the slap against Christians who keep themselves busy in “ornate liturgies”. The implication is that those who care about the liturgy obviously don’t care about anything else. This seems much more of a Calvinist stance than a Catholic one. You surely know that the Church herself insists on beauty in the liturgy, as does our Holy Father and all the saints (including St Francis of Assisi). Your position on the liturgy most certainly does not reflect the mind of the Church or the ‘sensus catholicus’ down the ages.

  • Peter

    The Church in Britain is dying because at parish level it no longer gives priority to providing for the least of Christ’s brothers, the desperately poor of the third world, especially the children.  Hence a great opportunity to give witness to the local community of compassion and self-sacrifice is lost.

    Many parishes of course do give witness are they are like shining beacons, but sadly many do not, preferring instead to voluntarily fundraise for their own benefit.

    If all Catholic parishes throughout the country, supported by their bishops, made a renewed attempt to support the thrid world, then perhaps the Church would recover some of the relevance that it enjoyed throughout history as the first line of provision for the poor and destitute.

    All to often, however, parishes are becoming smug and self-satisfied social clubs, with little relevance to the wider community, let alone the third world.

  • Realist

    Haldane is correct. There is too much baggage in the church, obscuring Christ, Who should be the focus. The baggage came in with Constantine and has been accumulating ever since. The early persecuted church traveled light; no pilgrimages, certainly no veneration of their fellow-believers (saints), meeting secretly in house churches around a table in dangerous surroundings. In view of Isaiah 53, the ‘beauty’ thing gets overdone.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    I think both Realist and Martel are reading too much into the remark: ‘..like believers who keep themselves busy in social causes or ornate liturgies and make these the locus of their religion’. No rejection of saints; no rejection of beauty in liturgy. Merely the observation that that (some) believers can avoid the deepest questions by an overriding concentration on one aspect of the Church. Haven’t you met people who have spent too much of their energies on reforming society or reforming the liturgy? I have. Doesn’t mean to say they are always bad things (and I’d be amazed if Haldane that they were given what he’s written in the past) but it is possible to become obsessed by them to an unhealthy degree.

  • Charles Martel

    Just wondering, realist, are you a Catholic or a protestant? Your position is very reminiscent of 16th century heresiarchs…
    And what do you mean by the ‘early persecuted Church’? What’s your time frame?

  • Mark Bailey

    Realist, I have to wonder whether you get your history from Dan Brown. Constantine ‘recognised’ Christianity, but was a long way from making it the official religion of the empire; unsurprising considering Christians made up about 10% of its population at the time and he only became Christian on his deathbed. It took until Theodosius for Christianity to be made official.

    It was the early church in the writings of the Church Fathers and the first councils who ‘brought in the baggage’ and what wonderful baggage it was, Constantine merely stopped persecuting it and thus allowed it to come into the daylight.

  • Anonymous

    It is truly amazing that Christopher Hitchens did not recognize the truth regarding the atheist regimes that were responsible for millions of deaths during the past Century.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, indeed.

    Peter Hitchens has countered in detail and with heartfelt honesty the antipathy towards religion (by which is actually meant Christianity) of the ‘liberal’ left in general, including that of his brother, in his book ‘The Rage Against God’.  In the chapter entitled “Are ‘so-called’ religious conflicts about religion?” he argues cogently that “Those who blame religion for wars tend to do so only when it suits them to do so, and without paying much attention to the details”, illustrating the point with concisely explained examples and focused intellectual rigour. 

    “The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice under an unalterable law,” he also reminds us, ” are the ultimate defence against the utopian belief that ends justify means and that morality is relative”. 

    As a believing, struggling, faithful Roman Catholic born and living in England, I am heartened that these are the beliefs of a faith-filled, conscientious traditional Anglican who once shared the political aetheism of his own brother.

  • Fred

    Perhaps Professor Haldane has seen something in Hitchens’ rants that I’ve missed. But for my money, Hitchens’ view of religion is so stereotyped and shallow that it is absolutely impossible to take seriously. 

  • Fourth norn

    Professor Haldane’s point about Catholics manifesting grace and holiness seems to have disappeared in controversy about liturgy and other things – things which a moderately careful reading of his article indicate he did not say. This is a wise appreciation of Hitchens. He was out of place in the company of baying atheists, the type who will encourage each other in Melbourne this year and think themselves superior and witty as soi disants do. They will be poorer this time round but more importantly, we are poorer for the loss of a challenging man. Sadly, Haldane’s judgment that he was intellectually dishonest is true. I don’t think he was interested in serious replies to his objections to religion. Still, he is much better than Dawkins, who misrepresents what atheists disbelieve. That’s not saying much and one might have hoped for a much more serious conversation about religion from Hitchens but Haldane is right to point to the punches he landed. Let us not deny him that in honestly appraising his merits.

  • Anonymous

    Hitchens has indeed set a challenge. But, as the headline refers specifically to Catholics, while the article refers to other things as well – what is to be given an account of: “religion”, “Christianity”, “faith”, “the Catholic Faith”, “faith in Christ”, the value as, an account of reality, of a vision of reality that is not purely naturalistic, or some combination of these ? St.Paul did not preach religion – he preached Christ. Jesus was very anti-religious in some senses. If the claims for Christ are true, those for Islam must in part at least be untrue & deceptive. So what is the challenge a challenge to ?

    “If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong?”

    “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” – without that, we cannot by any means in creation whatsoever see and know and think and love and desire as we are intended to. If all creation is centred on Christ, & if Christ is the Exemplar and prototype of every creature, to try to live by our finite resources is not ultimately possible. Anyone has any experience of the Faith Movement (the *Catholic* one) will know what is meant. A major problem with atheism, at least it as often presents itself (& the same is true of much Christian apologetic) is that both are overly intellectual; as though we could reason ourselves into the grace of God. Too much apologetic is about what we do – not about what Christ does to bring us to Himself. There is an unreal compartmentalisation between people’s intellects, and what the Bible calls the heart – the moral centre of man. No argument, however brilliant as an argument, will get anywhere if it treats people as though they were divided into hermetically sealed compartments.

    So mere “braininess” is useless as an entrance into the Trinitarian Life of God – it’s a great gift to be “brainy”, not to be sneezed at; but it is one within the natural order, that is good & useful within that order even without being elevated beyond its innate capacities by grace. But unless it is elevated by a wholly super-natural grace from God, it will be useless as a way to Him – for He has to come to us if we are to receive the first grace that prepares us for justification. All the intellectual brilliance in the world is no good without the faith that God alone can give. 

    “Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and
    with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has
    its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious
    adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s
    campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is
    your grace and your holiness?””

    ## It is natural (in one sense) for Godless regimes to produce evil, if they are built on the denial of God; but for the Church to do so, as it has, is by the standard of what Catholics claim is true, perverse, scandalous & a horrible thing. Answers can be given to atheists, at least up to a point, but valuable as they may be they are unsatisfactory if they are no more than intellectual constructions. As for that particular problem, any answer (so far as one is possible) would have to be in several parts, because a consideration of this particular problem presupposes an appreciation of several other problems.  ISTM that Hitchens’ denunciation of the recent scandals was more Christian & more Catholic than some Catholic attempts to minimise what has happened. It is appropriate (though not without some dangers) to loathe evil – and what he denounced did not manifest the Graciousness of Christ in His Church. Those who call evil by its right name are not altogether unlike the Prophets – maybe God is working through them to say through them things we need to hear. It is after all His Church, & no man’s – let alone our club !

  • Blackoxford

    “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking to heaven in hope of salvation.” One might add “…while we pontificate and oppress”. It is this latter that Hitchens railed against not the former. And to this criticism is there a real response within institutional Catholicism, for which original sin is claimed to touch everything but itself? Is self-critical analysis, in other words, possible while the claim to absolute truth and authority persists?

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hq8_EkupU5A Bellator

    Judaising Protestant nonsense. Go join the Unitarians.

  • Charles Martel

    You have to admit there is something odd about Dr Haldane’s swipe at those who find the locus of their religion in ‘ornate liturgies’. Who are these people? Even if one wanted to devote all one’s energies to ‘ornate liturgies’, one could only spend a very limited amount of time each week on it. Is it the ‘ornate’ bit he despises? Is this is slap at the Brompton Oratory? The Vatican? Any church which uses incense and beautiful vestments? As I say, for a Catholic to come up with this is absolutely bizarre. I’m sure he would agree with John Knox, alumnus of his university, who said that Christian worship should return to “the grave and godly face of the primitive church.” Fine. That’s what we would expect from a heretic and an iconoclast, but I would expect something better from an eminent orthodox Catholic professor.

  • avinash persaud

    You miss Mr. Hitchen’s central point Mr. Haldane. It was not his central view that Catholics being venal like most other humans disproved the veracity of Catholicism. It was that Catholicism like all other religions are axiomatically evil.

  • Undoctrinated

    @Fred- Seriously? I can only assume you never read his book. Shallow? After a lifetime of front line Middle East conflict set journalism, I think you grossly underestimate his credentials.

  • Ian

    Incredible. You call Dawkins a ‘fundamentalist’ yet you are part of a cult that lies to children. Dawkins educates facts. He doesn’t fly planes into buildings, mutilate babies’ genitals, kill doctors, interfere with consenting adults’ sex lives, he isn’t homophobic and he respects women. No i think the fundamentalist label belongs to religions.

  • Marie D.Ryan

    Some food for serious thought.

  • Lumitopia

    Dr. Haldane, Re: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking to heaven in hope of salvation.”

    The Christian perspective of being born into sin is pure silliness. Scriptural support for the concept of our inherited, “Adam Gene” does not make it so. Substantial experiential evidence clearly indicates we are inherently good (quite possibly modeled in the image of God you might say). Furthermore, the concept of sin is a purely human construction designed to influence and control people through its belief. Karma is a far better assessment of cause and effect and the outcomes which are manifested. From the karmic perspective, one can deal directly with the irrational mind and work toward the necessary corrections versus absolving oneself of the responsibility of their actions, then being subjected to additional suffering through the useless emotion called guilt. An emotion that becomes an unnecessary “rabbit hole” that greatly hampers an already irrational mind from gaining a new, healthier perspective.

    Quite possibly the long held Catholic belief in the concept of original sin is at the heart of why so many of its leaders continually fail to accept responsibility for their own actions thus, perpetuating centuries of misery for millions of people, namely women and children.