Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Christopher Hitchens: Attempting the good death without God

In "Christopher Hitchens: A humanist at heart" (Washington Post , October 15, 2010), Michael Gerson offers some thoughts on celebrated atheist author Christopher Hitchens's disdain for "deathbed conversions," despite his serious illness and recent bad news. Gerson comments,
... Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

The best answer that Christopher Hitchens can offer to this ethical objection is himself. He is a sort of living refutation -- an atheist who is also a moralist. His politics are defined by a hatred of bullies, whether Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or the mullahs in Iran. His affections are reserved for underdogs, from the Kurds to Salman Rushdie. The dreams of totalitarians are his nightmares -- what W.H. Auden described as: "A million eyes, a million boots in line/Without expression, waiting for a sign." Even Hitchens's opposition to God seems less a theological argument than a revolt against celestial tyranny.

All this fire and bleeding passion would seem to require a moral law, even a holy law. But Hitchens produces outrage, empathy and solidarity without it.
We constantly hear from atheists that one can be good without God. The problem is, the atheist has set the goal posts for being "good" himself. Anyone can score in that situation.

Hitchen's passion is easily bested by the passion (for slaughtering millions) of fellow atheists like Josef Stalin. Maybe (well, definitely) I like Hitchens better than Stalin, but that establishes nothing. I also like sushi better than ice cream. So?

If God did nothing else for the moral law, the fact that he is something other and higher than ourselves privileges his view. One could say the same thing of the Eastern ideas of karma or the cosmic mind. In other words, the things you cannot escape just by rebelling or not happening to like them.

It is good to want justice, as Hitchens does, but it is God (or karma) that fill in the idea. One sometimes wonders if "new atheists" like Hitchens don't believe in life after death because they realize that no one can be his own judge.

Here, the celebrated atheist author talks to Sally Quinn (from On Faith) about how he copes with his diagnosis of esophageal cancer (a week long series). It begins, "It's a strange thing having a malady like this, because you feel that you must, at the same time, make preparations to die and to live."

Gerson cautiously comments,
At the Pew Forum, Hitchens was asked a mischievous question: What positive lesson have you learned from Christianity? He replied, with great earnestness: the transience and ephemeral nature of power and all things human. But some things may last longer than he imagines, including examples of courage, loyalty and moral conviction.
See also:

The New Atheists are really God's prophets?

All roads end, but usually at another road

Why we must make sure the Darwinists lose (a rather deplorable take on deathbed conversions)

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