Skip to comments.Learning from Christopher Hitchens: Lessons Evangelicals Must Not Miss
Posted on 01/15/2012 2:18:32 PM PST by rhema
The death of Christopher Hitchens on December 15 was not unexpected, and that seemed only to add to the tragedy. His fight against cancer had been lived, like almost every other aspect of his colorful life, in full public view. He had told numerous interviewers that he wanted to die in an active, not a passive sense. Then again, there may never have been a truly passive moment in Christopher Hitchens life.
Long before he was known as one of the worlds most ardent atheists, he was known as a world-class essayist and a hard-driving public intellectual. Born in England, he had made his home in Washington, D.C. for three decades. His range of interests was almost unprecedented. He wrote books on subjects as varied as Thomas Paine and the Elgin Marbles. He was a predictable man of the Left when he began his journalistic career in Britain, and he remained a staunch defender of civil liberties throughout his life. Nevertheless, he broke with liberals in the United States and Britain when he affirmed the Bush Administrations decision to wage war against terrorism in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He could write eloquent prose, but he could also write savagely. He was a self-described contrarian, even writing a book entitled, Letter to a Young Contrarian. In that book, he described this contrarian stance as a disposition against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion. In practice, for Hitchens it seemed to mean the right to attack any idea, any place, any time, no matter who might hold it.
In 2007 he launched a full assault upon theism and belief in God. In God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens declared himself to be the implacable and determined foe of all religious belief. Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, he became part of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.
Actually, his atheism had already been announced. In Letters to a Young Contrarian, published in 2001, Hitchens had written that he was not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. Hitchens did not want to be confused with amateur atheists or with the generalized agnosticism of our culture. No, he was the enemy of religious faith and any claim of belief in God.
God is Not Great became a best-seller a manifesto of the New Atheism and its aggressive public presence. Hitchens distilled the New Atheism to its essence. He asserted that belief in God is not only without intellectual integrity, it is also morally corrupting. He blamed belief in God for everything from ethnic strife and genocide to opposition to science and a hatred of sexuality. Along with the other New Atheists, he delivered a broadside against all theistic belief and religious expression. Whereas the older atheists had soft-pedaled attacks on Jesus Christ, Hitchens rejected any effort to sentimentalize Christ. He wrote that the New Testament was no less violent than the Old Testament and he lambasted any claim of divine revelation. He argued that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse and denied that belief in God is necessary to morality.
At the end of his life, fighting against the cancer that had robbed him of his voice even before it stilled his pen, Hitchens pointedly asked Christians not to pray for him, and then allowed that believers might pray for him if it made them feel better. He also warned against any claims that he might have converted at the end of his struggle. Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? he wrote. I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice. He told others that, if such reports did emerge, they should be attributed to the influence of drugs, and the loss of his mental faculties.
With all that in mind, how can I claim that evangelical Christians should learn from Christopher Hitchens? Well, consider these lessons:
1. Hitchens understood the power of ideas, and he never left a field of intellectual combat without giving his best.
Even as a boy, Christopher Hitchens understood that ideas matter. This conviction was only deepened as he was educated at Oxford University and then, as both journalist and public intellectual, entered the fray of public debate. He never ran from an idea, nor from the responsibility to defend and refine that idea in the combat of intellectual engagement. In his view, ideas rule the world, and he was determined to give his all to the cause of making certain that the superior ideas, in his view, triumphed over the inferior ideas. He never surrendered an idea with a shrug, though he was, on some issues, ready to change his mind, and to stand against his former intellectual allies.
2. Hitchens committed his life to the production of words, believing that the printed and spoken word can change the world.
As a writer and essayist, Hitchens is often compared to George Orwell, the subject of one of his many books. Hitchens literary production was, by any measure, prodigious. As some of his friends noted, he seemed to write faster than they could read. He wrote books, essays, and seemingly countless articles. He was a public speaker, a conversationalist, and a commentator. He wrote books and essays that aggravated, assaulted, aggrieved, and irritated. He could be eloquent, and he could be crude. He believed that the power of language drove the world of ideas, and that ideas require verbal expression. He was hardly ever quiet, and the force of his arguments was expanded and extended in time through his writings. Though Hitchens is now dead, his books remain in print and widely available, and will be so for years to come.
3. Hitchens was a man of passion and personal intensity, and he made friends across ideological boundaries.
He was, as Tom Wolfe might describe him, a man in full. His passions were fully in view, if sometimes too much so. He delighted in human company, and made friends around the world. He had a host of Christian friends, including many who had debated him. He was never boring, always interesting, and just about everyone who knew him seems to recall his personal warmth and conviviality. At the very least, even when he attacked Christianity, he did not cut himself off from all Christians.
4. Hitchens did not hide behind intellectual scorn and he did not fear the open exchange of ideas.
Generally, the New Atheists are known for their unwillingness to debate Christians, especially Christian apologists. Richard Dawkins, in particular, has brought disrepute upon his own intellectual confidence by his steadfast and condescending refusal to debate Christian apologists and intellectuals. The same could not be said of Hitchens, who was willing to debate evangelical Christians and to allow the debates to be publicized and published. He did not attempt to shut down debate by insulting his ideological and theological opponents.
5. Hitchens revealed the danger of cultural Christianity and exposure to tepid, lifeless, superficial Christian teaching.
In his childhood, Hitchens was exposed to the mild Christianity of his father and the Hitchens home. (Later in life, he discovered that his mother was, in fact, partly Jewish.) As a schoolboy, Hitchens received the customary dose of tame religious instruction. In God is Not Great, he wrote of Mrs. Jean Watts, a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, who taught him religion at his school near Dartmoor. Even as a boy, Hitchens was not impressed by her emotivist expressions of doctrine and her answers to his questions. He wrote also of a school headmaster, who seemed, among other failings, to believe that belief in God served a mainly therapeutic function. Hitchens described himself then as quite the insufferable little intellectual, but the damage was done. Unlike others who, as he wrote, might have rejected belief in God because of abuse or brutish indoctrination, Hitchens simply developed indignant contempt for a belief system that seemed so superficial and fraudulent. An exposure to tepid, lifeless, thoughtless, and intellectually formless Christianity can be deadly.
The death of Christopher Hitchens is a tragedy. That much is affirmed by virtually all the countless individuals who knew him, or knew of him. But Christians experienced the death of Christopher Hitchens with a special sense of tragedy, for we could not think of his death merely on his terms. We have no choice but to believe that Christopher Hitchens, with all of his amazing gifts, will have to face the very God he so aggressively dismissed and denied. As for that deathbed change of heart he warned us all not to hope for we have every reason to hope that it happened in spite of himself.
For that matter, every single believer in Christ has come to believe and be saved by grace alone in spite of ourselves.
There are important lessons to be learned from the life and career of Christopher Hitchens, and they are lessons we must not fail to contemplate. In the final analysis, Christians have far less to fear from atheists or antitheists as we do from what Hitchens called the generalized agnosticism of our culture. We agree with him that the question of the existence and identity of God is nothing less than the most powerful and urgent question humanity will ever confront.
For this central reason, the death of Christopher Hitchens is an absolute tragedy. And, as is often the case with such a tragedy, we dare not miss the lessons with which we are left.
This is sad.I always enjoyed Hitchen’s intellect.He will be greatly missed,
Hitchens is Dead - YHWH
Hitchens did not hide behind intellectual scorn..”
This makes one question whether Mohler has a reading comprehension problem. With respect to Christianity, Hitchens’ method of argument was the drive-by cheapshot and sneer.
Hitchens was a dishonest, supremely arrogant, nasty man. There is absolutely no reason to whitewash his life and persona. Eveidently, Mohler can’t overcome his “evangelical niceness”, which, if Mohler’s account of the origins of Hitchen’s disdain for Christianity is to be believed, is precisely the sort of thing that drove Hitchens away from Christ.
That, however, is probably a naive rendering of Hitchens’ motives. Like sodomites everywhere, Hitchens was almost certainly much more inclined to deny Christ because of Hitchens’ sexual perversions and appetites than the weak version of Christianity he encountered. That diluted Christianity in all likelihood just made it easier for him to do what he wanted to do in the first place.
There is nothing to celebrate in the life of Hitchens. A good electrician does more every day to improve the lives of others than a bus load of dilletantes with acid pens...and that is all that Hitchens was.
C.S. Lewis had a very similar experience (though I think he probably had much higher intellectual horsepower than Hitchens).
But he wound up ditching atheism, largely due to the influence of brilliant friends like Tolkien and Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.
I disagreed with him on many things, but I highly respected his intellect, and latter day conservative leanings.
I find it hard to admire anything about a man who sneers at 90 year old women who have dedicated their lives to helping the needy.
I don't think there is anything disreputable in refusing to have the same dreary arguments over and over with people with whom you can't even establish a starting point. It's an exhausting and pointless exercise, and Dawkins is wise to forego it. Hitchens enjoyed that tussle. Not everyone does.
“A good electrician does more every day to improve the lives of others than a bus load of dilettantes with acid pens”
Sigh...a shame one can have only one sig line at a time....
Yah, so Tom Brady can throw a football. Big feckin deal. Just about everyone I know can.
Holy smithers. You have nailed the essence of Hitchens to the wall for all to see. I was always put out with Hugh Hewitt’s attachment to the man, though I mean nothing obtuse or irregular. But Hewitt seemed always to celebrate Hitchens though I’m sure that he, Hewitt, would counter that he disagreed with most of what Hitchens had to say. Good writing and clear thinking—a good job, Sir. Hewitt should take a lesson from you.
You nailed it - very well.
Hitchens entire argument with Mother Theresa was that while people in her care were left to die (in dignity according to her), she herself, when desperately sick, sought the best medical treatment in the world. She also took contributions from some of the world’s worst dictators.
I actually admired Mother Theresa despite her flaws. And her sisters (who are located in a convent not far from me) are wonderful.
Of course, like that right wing dictator Ronald Reagan who Hitchens railed about gving Mother Teresa the medal of freeedom.
In fact his honesty is what led him to turn against the left in the last quarter of his life. He outed Sidney Blumenthal and Clinton during the Lewinsky fiasco, and visited a family whose son died in Afghanistan after writing about how Hitchens defense of the war inspired him to join the military and fight in the war on terror, also attending the soldier's funeral in the process.
You obviously don't know much about him.
Hitchens was wrong about a lot of things - although I was present at a speech Hitchens gave in which he said he supported Reagan’s Star Wars after Bill Clinton’s criminal support of giving China military/industrial secrets.
Mother Theresa took huge amounts of money from the horribly corrupt and murderous Duvalier family, the criminal Charles Keating and praised Albania’s evil dictator, Enver Hoxha.
I prefer to think she did it out of naivete and desperation; Hitchens believes otherwise.
Who lost here?
Hitchens is dead, believing, and burning.
God is still Holy and Rightous.
This is Chris Hitchens:
It [World War I] had crucially undermined the autocracy, the Romanov dynasty. And I think it had very much discredited the Russian Orthodox Church, for which he [Lenin] had a particular dislike. But he was very willing to finish those jobs, all three of them, to wipe out the Romanov family, to rebuild the army, and under Trotskys leadership of the Red Army, and to seize the opportunity to confiscate church property and to dissolve, as far as possible, the influence of the church.
One of Lenins great achievements, in my opinion, is to create a secular Russia. The power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was an absolute warren of backwardness and evil and superstition, is probably never going to recover from what he did to it.
The difficulty was that he also inherited, and partly by his measures created, even more scarcity and economic dislocation. The Bolsheviks had studied what had happened to the French revolution and they knew there was a danger of autocracy developing in their own ranks, and they were always on the look out for another Bonaparte. And the person who most looked like Bonaparte to them was Trotsky, who had flamboyance and military genius and charisma.”
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