I came across a clip from Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) responding to a question from an audience member. The video, below, is entitled, Hitchens delivers one of his best hammer blows to cocky audience member. Hitchens, very gracefully, offered to field any questions if anyone felt they were not fully answered during a talk he gave. Hitchens, admirably, was also open to any direct challenges.
A question was raised that was loaded with presupposition, ignorance, and perhaps some malice. However, Hitchens did not, as the video title suggests, deliver a “hammer blow.” Rather, he revealed a limited frame of reference that was surprising for a man of his experience.
The questioner asked, “If there is no God, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t?” In other words, why does he care? I’ve heard this question raised before to atheists. As a former atheist, it was also asked of me. The answer is obvious. If there is no God, then billions of people are wasting their time and money on a false hope. This deserves to be shouted from the roof tops in the name of all that is, well, we can’t say holy, but perhaps for the betterment of mankind. Hitchens wants people to know the truth. He’s a truth seeker.
Now, one could argue that the audience member was trying to tap into the larger moral argument which would suggest that if there is no God (no ultimate intelligent designer with a plan) then nothing matters. But I don’t think that’s what he was after. Instead, it was a cheap shot to try to stump a very smart, passionate, and confrontational Hitchens. Even if no malice was intended, it suggests that atheists have no basis for morals. If that’s what he was after, there are more respectful approaches. Had he stressed the moral basis, he would have been more likely to see what lies behind Hitchens – what really drives him and why – and why he thinks something should be done about religious belief – and how he supports his moral outrage about the evils in religion and the world. Instead the audience member merely created more division between believers and atheists unnecessarily.
Despite the errors and motives from the questioner, Hitchens response is really surprising. He starts by noting how 9/11 was the impetus for his desire to help people understand the destructive nature of monotheistic, messianic religion [i.e., Christianity]. He makes a shocking statement, saying that, “with a large part of itself, it [monotheistic, messianic religion] quite clearly wants us all to die.” He says that the religious want the world to end so they can rest in the arms of Jesus. He goes on to focus on the rapture quoting a very narrow and misunderstood view of the end times by a small sect.
Hitchens is correct in that some Christians live out their faith with badly distorted views of theology and the eschaton. These Christians are mistaken and need guidance and correction. They also need to dig into the Gospel much deeper. Hitchens is also correct that Jesus is about death, but it’s not at all how Hitchens has come to understand it. Jesus, above all else, died so we could live. Jesus is about self-sacrificial love so we can have life to the fullest and eternally. The life (and death) of Jesus reflects God’s profound love for us – to save us – even at the cost of his own life. God is Life, not death. Hitchens is lumping together a bad understanding of Christian theology with bomb-strapping Islamic extremists. From this, and other select ideas about religious belief, he creates an argument that all religion is bad.
Religion has a lot to answer for, no doubt. It’s history is bloody. It’s not nearly as bloody as the history of atheism, but that’s beside the point, though worth noting. In other words, if you want to quantify the evils of religion compare them to atheism. Atheism has a lot more to answer for. What’s striking is that Hitchens’ argument is equivalent to saying that science is bad because of the nuclear bomb and all the incredible weapons of mass destruction it has helped create. According to Hitchens logic, we should therefore do away with it. We should ignore the great medical breakthroughs that have saved lives and just sweep it all away.
Hitchens scholarship, and thus premise, are not sound. Oxford scholar, Keith Ward, puts this type of logic this way, paraphrased, just because there are a few jerks in the pub doesn’t mean that pubs are bad.
What’s really surprising (scary actually) is the narrow view and understanding of Christianity Hitchens takes. How can someone of his caliber – he’s up there with Dawkins and Dennet – fail to grasp the fundamentals of Jesus? He doesn’t seem to even know the basic stuff kids learn in Sunday school. It’s shocking really. Instead, he takes bad theology from narrow and misunderstood views and holds that up as Christianity.
I agree that we should call out bad theology and expose it for what it is, but we then need to look at good theology from professionals such as Tim Keller, Peter Kreeft, Keith Ward, C.S. Lewis, John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, J.I. Packer and many others.
With such a limited and narrow understanding of religious faith (and Jesus), to make such sweeping claims about them, is irresponsible and dangerous. Hitchens sets a great example of what not to do, and what to watch out for when discussing religion and faith.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson
Hitchens delivers one of his best hammer blows to cocky audience member