The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens

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On December 15, contemporary unbelief lost one of its most gifted apologists, Christopher Hitchens. He, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are often referred to as the four horsemen of the New Atheism. It is called the “New” Atheism because of its evangelistic zeal, an enthusiasm largely absent from the more urbane and engaging infidelities of “the Old Atheists” like Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, or Antony Flew.

But like all undisciplined enthusiasts who confuse wisecracking proselytes with wisdom-seeking pilgrims, the New Atheists seem incapable of completely ridding themselves and their disciples of the metaphysical infrastructure of the creeds from which they claim to have decisively fled. Hitchens, for example, in his book God Is Not Great, argues that “religion poisons everything,” blaming religious believers and their beliefs for many of the atrocities of history.

Setting aside the question of Hitchens’ historical accuracy and philosophical acumen, his thesis correctly affirms that human beings have had their rights violated by other human beings who committed their wicked deeds in the name of God and for bad reasons.

Some of the cases that Hitchens cites involve legitimate governments perpetuating and protecting wicked acts that these states had the legal power to perpetuate and protect. And yet, this fact would have not moved Hitchens to say that the acts he thinks are wrong are now right. Why? Because human beings are beings of a certain sort and thus by nature possess certain rights that their governments are morally obligated to recognize and protect.

In fact, Hitchens writes that he and other atheists “believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,” thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.

But to speak of a natural moral law – a set of abstract, immaterial, unchanging principles of human conduct that apply to all persons in all times and in all places – seems oddly out of place in the universe that Hitchens claimed we occupy, a universe that is at bottom a purposeless vortex of matter, energy, and scientific laws that eventually spit out human beings.

And to speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one’s character consistent with a human being’s proper end. But proper ends require intrinsic purposes, just the sorts of things that a theistic philosophy of nature affirms and Hitchens’ philosophical naturalism denies.

In the same book, Hitchens writes that “what we [atheists] respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness.” Unsurprisingly, Hitchens procures pages and pages of evidence to show how the suppression of open-mindedness has led to the vice of ignorance and thus untold mischief and misery in the history of the human race.

His point is clear:  human beings have the power to act consistently or inconsistently with their own good and the good of others, and open-mindedness makes advancing that good more likely.

Open-mindedness, of course, is a good thing. No right-thinking person denies that. But to say that anything is a “good thing” cannot be understood apart from what makes it a good thing for the being who ought to actualize it. 

So, for example, it would make no sense for me to say that my dog, Phydeaux, ought to be open-minded, since a canine is not the sort of being for which open-mindedness can ever be a virtue (or closed-mindedness a vice), just as the number three can never be the reddest letter in the alphabet.

Natures matter. Consequently, we learn from Hitchens’ commitment to open-mindedness what he thought about the nature of the human being’s intellect and the role of its proper functioning in advancing the good of the individual and the community in which he resides.

For Hitchens there is a normative natural end, an intrinsic purpose, to a human being’s active power for self-movement to engage in free acts initiated and/or accompanied by thought and reflection. Thus, like Hitchens’ allusion to a natural moral law and his commitment to the ethical life, his call for open-mindedness requires a philosophy of nature that his philosophical naturalism cannot sustain.

It presupposes a nature teeming with intrinsic purposes, the sort of nature that the New Atheists tell us smacks at an ancient understanding with which we are no longer saddled – thanks to the ascendancy of philosophical naturalism. 

So, in order to show us that God is not great, Hitchens relies on the philosophical infrastructure that only this diminished deity can adequately provide.

Hitchens’ atheism was a God-haunted atheism.  May he rest in the peace in which he did not believe.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • Mr. Patton

    There is no enjoyment in being alone unless one can be alone against someone else. What is the point in having a sanctum sanctorum unless you can lock the door against at least one other person even if it is only your servant? Atheism is no different…:)

  • Manfred

    The best discussions between atheists and believers I have seen are from the 2008 film EXPELLED: No Intelligence allowed with Ben Stein as the moderator. It is brilliant. One of the highlights is the interview with Stein and Dawkins when Stein asks him where life came from. Dawkins had no idea. When pressed by Stein, Dawkins finally responded that maybe aliens from another planet introduced it. The film is not glib or funny. When it is over, the believing viewer has a real sense of superiority over the ignorance of the atheist who has not been given grace.

  • Steve

    “In saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary? Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.”
    -Leibniz, “Discourse on Metaphysics”, section II.

    In other words, what makes it that a particular action performed by a particular nature good exists independently of the existence of God. This is recognized by the philosophical tradition called “moral rationalism”, to which St. Thomas Aquinas is often thought to belong. One can argue from this position that God’s role in human morality was merely the creation of human nature; the moral teleology followed from the nature He created as a matter of course. The point of this is. that it is not at all clear, even to some believers, that the New Atheist position, relies on a philosophical infrastructure only God can provide.

  • Francis J. Beckwith


    It seems to me that the New Atheists rely on final and formal causality whenever they issue judgments of a universal nature and which assume intrinsic purpose. For example, whenever a New Atheist accuses his adversary of ignorance, such a judgment requires that one believe that the mind has a proper end–the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge–and that it is in fact unjust to violate that end. But, remember, according to the New Atheists, anything that smacks at intrinsic purpose is illusory, since the apparent order of nature is a burlesque that covers what is “real”: law, chance, matter, and energy interacting for no purpose. But in that case, any negative judgment of a person’s ignorance must, by the rules of the New Atheist game, be just as illusory.

    The reason for this, I believe, is the abandonment of what was once called “first philosophy.” Today, there is a tendency to treat all questions as if they were scientific questions, using the hard sciences as a model of epistemic rationality. For that reason, the sort of analysis I offer in this piece is deeply foreign to most contemporary intellectuals.

  • Tony Esolen

    I have heard all my life long about the supposed innumerable crimes of “religion,” by which the interlocutor typically means “Christians”. There’s no question that people do wicked things, and that many people who do wicked things call themselves Christians, violating the law of Christ Himself. But when you look at human history, you don’t see very many crimes committed in the name of religion. Most wars, really almost all of them, have had nothing to do with religion. And then there is the bloody history of 20th century irreligion, which the Hitchenses will not own up to.

  • Grump

    I believe Hitch described himself as a “non-theist” rather than an atheist, although the nuance eludes me. He claimed to have read over 10,000 books and for a man so book-learned, he appeared to have resisted to the end any notion of the “open-mindedness” that he espoused in all matters except when it came to the existence of God.

    Perhaps a deathbed conversion occurred, but we will never know what he might have uttered, if anything, with his last breath. Even as few as five words — “Jesus, have mercy on me” — might have been enough to expunge the million he wrote that railed against belief.

    As an agnostic with always straddling the line that Hitch was willing to cross, I’ll give him credit for standing on his convictions, however wrong they may have been. I recall his argument against Pascal’s Wager — which boils down to what-do-you-have-to-lose believing in God – on principle. He sincerely could not believe and therefore to gamble on his fate would have been sheer hypocrisy for him and for many who think that a mere coin flip is no way to decide one’s destiny.

    For my part, as I waffle entering my 70th year in this life, I still feel the tug of the Hound of Heaven now and then, and hope that perhaps Jesus will clasp my hand and I will go with Him.

    I will miss Hitch, as malicious as he could be at times, because he had a charming side that endeared him to many including writers on TCT who had hoped he would see the Light someday. If Hitch makes it to heaven, I would not be surprised. If I make it, I will be no less astonished.

  • SW

    Thank you for a fine eulogy of a small man who pretended to greatness and convinced many of this. The hitch in Hitchens was that he tried to nuance everything while using barbs and knives to cut at people.

    Religion has not been the cause of man’s misery, but those in governance. At one time religions held a seat at the table of power, and as another commenter wrote, in the 20th century the atheists and cultural Marxists held seats at that same table, with the gruesome proof that the 20th century was the most brutal and murderous and war-filled century in written history. The atheists and “non-theists” of this moment in time cannot answer that truth. because it sullies them far more than an empty accusation against religion(s).

    While some may miss their “Hitch,” I shall not. An anti-Semite, one-time hard Leftist and Stalinist, his wit was not enough to make me even a lukewarm admirer. His work will wither in the changing of the years and become merely a footnote, at best.

    As to Dawkins, the man knows little for all his knowledge, because he does not know that all men believe in something — like space aliens bringing life to earth. Folly pretending wisdom.

  • Steve

    Fr. Francis, I think that you are misrepresenting the views of the New Atheists. Take the case of Sam Harris; he wrote a book called “the moral landscape”, in which he argues that moral truths can be discovered by “Science” in accordance with a utilitarian mind-set. The book is pretty bad, but he does do a good job lambasting the moral relativism of contemporary anthropology and the liberal intelligentsia as being clearly false. In the book he is pretty explicit in his condemnations of cultures that practice honor killings and female circumcision as being objectively immoral because it does not maximize human well-being in accordance with human nature. Although most of the New Atheists display a sad ignorance of basic philosophical positions, I would think that they would admit to some kind of moral rationalism if you explained the stakes to them. This could, I think, make them immune from your criticisms.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Hitchens did not admire H. L. Mencken, but he surely would have agreed with this:

    “When I mount the scaffold at last these will be my farewell words to the sheriff: Say what you will against me when I am gone, but don’t forget to add, in common justice, that I was never converted to anything.”
    — H. L. Mencken, Baltimore _Evening Sun_, June 12, 1922

  • K T Cat

    In the same book, Hitchens writes that “what we [atheists] respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness.”

    There is no indication that atheism will lead to this and every indication that it won’t. Soviet Russia, Communist China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hitler’s Germany were all atheist and all devoutly closed-minded. Open-mindedness can only come from respect for minorities and that’s not a hallmark of atheist societies.

  • Robert

    Professor Beckwith wrote,
    “In fact, Hitchens writes that he and other atheists ‘believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion,’ thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.”

    Such a belief implies no such thing.

    Rather, the implication is that there is a non-religious ethical code by which one can live. You and others may agree or disagree with contents of the code, in full or in part, but that doesn’t negate its existence.

    “And to speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one’s character consistent with a human being’s proper end. But proper ends require intrinsic purposes, just the sorts of things that a theistic philosophy of nature affirms and Hitchens’ philosophical naturalism denies.”

    Philosophical naturalism, as I understand it, does not regard nature itself as having an intrinsic purpose, but that doesn’t mean objects within nature cannot. The intrinsic purpose of a watch, for example, would be to provide the time.

    As for “a theistic philosphy of nature”, there is none. Rather, there are contradictory philosophies, none of which adequately explain why nature exists at all.

  • Doug


    That “non-religious” ethical code of which you speak: there is none. Rather there are a gazillion contradictory such non-religious codes, none of which begins to address the provenance of “an ethical life” in the first place.

  • Robert


    Sorry, I should have been more clear. There are indeed many ethical codes; I did not mean to imply there is but one.

    Your claim that none of them addresses the provenance of an ethical life is false on its face. Inherent in an ethical code is the notion of what an ethical life is. Again, you may not agree with that code, but that doesn’t negate the fact.

    No one wishes to defend Professor Beckworth’s [SIC] seemingly erroneous claims?

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    Robert, there is actually no such thing as a watch. There are, of course, collections of physical parts that we put together for the purpose of telling time and we call a “watch.” But there are no watches per se. Thus, whatever purpose a watch has, it is not intrinsic to the thing as a whole. For there is in fact no whole thing that is ontologically prior to its parts. The watch’s purpose is extrinsic, relative to the utility it serves those that use it. Organisms, on the other hand, do have intrinsic purposes. A human organism, for example, is intrinsically ordered for the development of the powers that result in the exercise of rationality, moral judgment, etc., even if those powers never arise. This is why we consider it an injustice to deprive an infant of its vocal chords or its higher brain functions even before it can speak or think. On the other hand, to remove the second hand from a watch does it no injustice.

    As for moral codes and atheism. Of course, atheists may have moral codes, just as the Soviet Union had laws. My point is much more subtle than that. It raises the question of the grounding of the codes themselves. Why follow them? After all, Hitchens believed that the Spanish Inquisition had its codes as well. But, I suspect, that Hitchens would not think that the mere acknowledgment of their existence was sufficient to think they ought to be obeyed.

    The mere codification of rules cannot be its own justification.

    As for Harris’ utilitarianism, it is as lame as Steve suggests. For one could simply point out to Harris that there are millions of people who would become distraught and hopeless if they were to embrace his atheism. Since, according to Harris, personal well-being is fundamental to the moral life. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, one would do well not to advance the cause of atheism.

  • Doug

    “Inherent in an ethical code is the notion of what an ethical life is”. Quite so. But the provenance/foundation/warrant/basis for that ethical code/life is emphatically not inherent in an ethical code. Try as folks might, there is no intellectually coherent “bootstrap” model of consciousness, language, logic, rationality, or, indeed, morality.

  • Robert

    Professor Beckwith, your original assertion was that an ethical life implies “a direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law”, but have clarified that to mean why anyone ought to follow an ethical life as informed by an ethical code.

    I think we can agree that my objection to your assertion was correct, since you have admitted that there exist ethical codes independent of an alleged natural moral law. The question you now pose is, “Why follow them?”

    There are several reasons for following a certain ethical code, many of which you undoubtedly share. For example, a particlar code one may regard as leading to a better world, not simply for your self, but for those you care about and even for mankind as a whole. A code may provide you feelings of fulfillment, acceptance, accomplishment, etc. Whatever the case, there are strong reasons for following an ethical code.

    “For one could simply point out to Harris that there are millions of people who would become distraught and hopeless if they were to embrace his atheism.”

    I’m not familiar with Harris’s utilitarianism, but from the testimonies I’ve read, most who embrace atheism express feelings quite the opposite as those you describe.

  • Robert

    Doug, of course the basis is there, else why follow it? For example, one may regard the ethical code of humanism as best securing the well-being of yourself and fellow man.

    If you would, please define what you mean by “intellectually coherent”.