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The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens

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 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).