Hitch and the Holocaust

The new book on my bedside table is not on the Master List, but still one I have wanted to read ever since it came out: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. I expect to write another post specifically about the book itself, but its subject of World War II atrocities has me thinking about another completely unrelated nonfiction book I am eager to pick up: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Okay, so why is that?

Hitchens was a well-known critic of religion. Critic is a kind word. Hitchens once said, “I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion.”  Given the subject of Bloodlands, which deals with event that caused the largest slaughter of people in history, you can see the reason for the logical leap. Hitchens hated religion (and blamed much of the ethos behind World War II on religion) but here we have a case study of killing way outside the tenets of an Abrahamic faith. Now, I am not interested in exploring the moral question of God’s allowance of the Holocaust. The Problem of Evil is a classic first year hurdle for any student of theology or philosophy. Nor am I interested in scoring cheap points, lamely arguing Stalin and Hitler weren’t killing in the name of God. Rather, what I want to mull on for a moment is the nature of Hitchens’ religious loathing, because it was very pointedly a humanist sort of loathing. And it came sharpest when he saw religion serving as a means of oppression.

I believe that, at his core, Hitchens directed his hatred of religion, particularly his hate for Chritianity, with an eye not on the underlying concepts of the faith, but rather on its practitioners. I don’t mean to say that secretly, deep down, Hitchens believed in the Christian God. No, I think deep down he believed that the grand scope of life, the universe, and everything was, well, complicated. He was not willing to pigeonhole it with a name. Naming it diminished the magnitude and possibility of the great unknown Whys and Hows that formed us. In his own way, he was more reverential than many religious practitioners because he believed the big questions deserved a serious think, outside our cultural biases. What he hated was a lazy mind.

Hitchens just recently died and I was sorry to see him go. He was deliberately Falstaffian, quoting Dr. Johnson and Voltaire with such relish that you knew he aspired to be regarded as their modern incarnation. Fr. Robert Barron of the site wordonfire.org confessed to hungering for Hitchens’ work, if for nothing else out of guadium de stilo, a love of the style. Hitch was fun to listen to, not because his arguments were enginered with a logician’s precision, but because they were puckish and elephantine affairs, doused in ad hominem jousts.

One of Hitchen’s favorite phrases when he regularly argued the existence of God with theist philosophers was a priori, that is, “known at the outset.” He used the phrase with a bright schoolboy contempt for those types of people who believed there was a God inherently in their cores and then set out to find evidences for his existence. Hitch felt it was woefully unscientific to seek evidence to prove a foregone conclusion, but more than that, he found it sinister. A classic criticism of theology is known as “the God of the Gaps” where the Divine is with every new scientific discovery quartered in a smaller sphere of dominion where his existence doesn’t disqualify things like quantum physics and evolution. The Church has tended to use whatever science is available at the time to defend its existence of God, but always setting out to prove God regardless of the evidence; the conclusion was predetermined. It was his visible disgust with a priori arguments for God that made me realize what Christopher Hitchens actually believed. He did not disbelieve in God; he disbelieved in us.

Who were we to advocate that there was something as specific and, from a outsider’s perspective, unlikely as the Christian God?  How arrogant and dangerous to push a set of rigid rules for living on millions of people, regardless of whether they really believed. I can appreciate Hitch’s position. One’s faith is only sincere if personally accepted, outside of peer pressure.  Hitch saw a top-down faith, an institutional, almost governmental faith, as poison to progress. But his dislike for religion extended beyond a mere insinuation on the culture. He loathed the bigotry and ignorence that faith, in its worst moments, can spread.

Take Hitchens’ public debates, where he argued the existence of God before Christian audiences. In one of these, Hitch debated – and was way outmatched – by the evengelical apologist William Craig. The good Doctor Craig is almost puzzled by how flaccid Hitchens was in making his case. From a debating perspective, Hitch got trounced. But of course he wasn’t there to win a debate. He was there to taunt believers… who believe for the wrong reasons.

Take a look at that debate and you see Hitchens disregarding his opponents logical, point-by-point defense of the Christian God. Instead he makes broad statements  meant, I can only assume, to poke at perceived bigotries held by the audience. Get your DNA tested, he says, and learn about your African ancestors (hinting that he thinks the audience both denies evolution and has racial anxieties). At another point he says it is a true tragedy the world will one day be fried to a crisp by the expanding sun (i.e. you are not special, this world is not special, it is all fleeting). All of his remarks aim at taking the myopic believer down a notch, rather than the belief. His great failing, I think, was his own a priori bias: that anyone who believes in the Christian God is another ignoramus. Hitch glowered at those who presumed to have the Answer while harboring his own version of the same handicap; he took great pride in believing he was gifted with a clear vision, and not having the Answer was, in a way, a personal sort of Answer. “All you creeps make me sick because you think you’re better than everyone else, think you have it all figured out,” he would essentially sneer in his debates. “Well, you really don’t!”

The reply could be short and sweet: “Right back at you, comrade.”

In closing, I want to give a one last nod to Fr. Barron, who in his final reflection on Hitchens, after his death, observed that Hitchens was a man fixated on the need for justice in this world. Part of his fury with religion was a belief that faith was always a weapon to keep the people under control. Where he misses the mark was in believing that was the intent of religion, rather than a common abuse of it. The Holocaust was not perpetrated in the name of faith, no matter what Hitch believed, but it would not make much difference if it were. A perversion of goodness is still a perversion and nothing more. The Catholic Church, for example, could not have an untarnished day in its history, every one of its believers deep in sinfulness and contradictory practices. But that doesn’t affect the beliefs of the Church. It is the beliefs that need critiquing. This gets at a famous bit of logical fallacy, similar to ad hominem called Tu quoque.

Here’s an example:

You get my point?

Hitch was a sharp guy, but he preferred easy jabs than attacks on the underlying questions. As Fr. Robert Barron noted in his final response to Hitchens, post-mortem, “God is not a good thing, but goodness itself, God is not a just thing, but justice itself.”

I can almost hear Hitch saying, “All well and good, Father, you call it what you like, and I shall do the same.”

2 Responses to “Hitch and the Holocaust”
  1. judy birch says:

    Kevin: Kathy McGrath sent the link to your blog, knowing I’m a Hitchens, let’s say, student. My goodness, you are bold to take on the HItch. I wouldn’t dare. His essays fill the thickest book on my shelf, his books then outstack the volume of essays. In my lifetime, I don’t believe I’d be able to take it all in, nor begin to make a statement about what I “think” he meant. I’ve read enough to dream of being lucky perhaps to have a conversation, fortunate enough only to digest some of what he has published. I relished his appearances, sometimes a bit embarrassed at his disdain for lesser thinkers. I occasionally do quote him, but to me he’s a bit untouchable as I know of no one, quite so clever, quite so able.

    On the subject of religion – I enjoy his banter with his best friend Martin Amis as it calls upon one to think, rather than to prove a point – and instead to consider, as Hitchens often said, “the lack of evidence”. I’ll take a look at the debate you site here, no date; though I’ve seen him fairly squared, I’d be amused to see him outmatched. The man is, in my humble opinion, among the greatest essayists of our time – in philosophy, he was Cambridge bred.

    I’m now reading “Letters to a Young Contrarian” and loving every word. Easy jabs? I wince!
    Easy you may say only as any Hitchen’s remark would have been so deeply grounded. Look at the piece he wrote on Dickens literally from his death bed. Having followed his writing since I was a girl, I cried when he died, and confess to an awe. An awe which would overpower any effort to take him on . . . I’d fear he’d rise from the dead and swift me away with a perfectly crafted phrase.

    judeky@gmail.com (liz birch’s Mother)

    • Thanks for reading, Judy! I totally agree with you when you say it’s tricky to corner Christopher Hitchens and interpret what you “think” he meant. My sense is that was part of his DNA, to avoid being pinned down as an atheist, a leftist, an iconoclast. It all gets at his distrust of simple labels. I would guess he changed his mind sometimes just to keep from getting pinned down in one camp. And, I don’t know really where this idea goes, but I imagine he was more infatuated with the writing of his arguments than with their impenetrability. Being logically bulletproof can be tiresome and makes for dull copy. I wonder if he ever had internal debates between a preference for being read or being “right.” Of anyone, he knew they aren’t the same thing.

      But you’re right that the “easy jabs” line is unfair for his writing; I was thinking of his speaking engagements, where it strikes me he often just enjoys listening to himself and couldn’t help but deliver the occasional low blow zinger. I think the most interesting thing about that 08 debate I mention in the post is that, though from a pure debating perspective (i.e., clear thesis presented and defended) the other guy wins hands down, Hitchens is a lot more interesting to listen to.

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