The Cultural Illiteracy of Atheist Christopher Hitchens

Posted: Jul 01, 2007 5:55 PM
The Cultural Illiteracy of Atheist Christopher Hitchens

Best-selling atheist authors are riding a wave of ignorance and illiteracy.

The latest offering, God Is Not Great, comes from a bon vivant with a British accent, an attribute that lends sophistication in the eyes of the pseudo-intellectuals whose vision of the Christian is the Bible-thumping backwoodsman.

But Christians on the far right and on the far left, fundamentalists, or literalists of both stripes, have given Christopher Hitchens much to work with.

For example, Memorial Day saw the opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where Genesis comes alive with Adam and Eve alongside animatronic dinosaurs from 6,000 years ago. More of God’s country in Tennessee is slated for despoliation with a theme park to be called Bible Park USA.

Then the following week Arianna Huffington preached on CNN that the most pervasive message in the Bible concerns charity. Huffington, the publisher of the blog with the most vile words against Christians, commenting on the Democratic presidential candidates’ interviews on faith, pontificated on how the Bible advocates income redistribution.

We know that the Devil can quote Scripture, but Huffington misrepresents it egregiously. Real charity does not come at the end of a gun pointed by the IRS.

I do not assign the same obviously ulterior motives of political manipulation to those who build creation museums or Christian theme parks. While Huffington and her ilk hate Christianity, the theme park and museum builders have sincere intentions. But, gosh, I wish they’d read some books. And I’m talking about more than the Bible.

We are instructed to love God not only with all our hearts, but also our minds. But it seems that some people have simply abandoned their God-given reason.

These zombie-like people with smiles plastered on their faces are the worst ones to convince those with doubts. I had one of them send me to reading Ralph Waldo Emerson at a time when my faith was already wavering. She cornered me while I was doing laundry. With an expression between one of the early martyrs at the point of death and a hippie on an acid trip she asked me if I "knew Jesus." This of course implied that she did and what was wrong with me? I was out of the club. That was it. Nothing else. No other discussion. I know Jesus. You don't.

What was much more convincing to me were the great works of literature written by Christian authors. Though I saw these authors mocked in graduate school, the force of their ideas showed through. Their wisdom and humanity contrasted sharply with the nonsensical nihilism put out by the trendy authors, and their exponents, the professors.

Reading Milton led me back to the Bible. The late Walker Percy allowed for the idea of evolution. But he, like the proponents of intelligent design that I met at a Christian Faculty Forum at The University of Georgia, read the Bible not literally, like an instruction manual, but allowed for the possibility of a metaphorical meaning that went beyond their understanding. Shakespeare revealed the evil of atheism through characters like Iago. Flannery O'Connor demonstrated how her characters' estimations of their own goodness provided the opening for Satanic influences. Dostoyevsky exposed the evils of pride and self-devised "justice."

Surprisingly, Hitchens cites some of these Christian authors in his claim that atheists are not simply scientists gone off the deep end of rationalism. They appreciate Art:

"We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books."

But Hitchens must be banking on a readership that has not read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. These Christian authors dramatized the themes and stories of the very holy book that Hitchens disparages. Has he forgotten how Shakespeare explicitly has Iago explain the materialist origins of his wickedness: "Virtue? A fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens"? Iago is a sociopath because he is an atheist.

Hitchens gives lip-service to these Christian authors, despite his claims of erudition. Literature endeavors to reveal some truth and its beauty. Therefore, the enterprise has to presuppose some end, some ultimate source of truth. Contrary to his beliefs, that truth does not reside in Hitchens’s brain. That source is God. For if literature does not aim for the revelation of some truth, then what is the purpose of suspending disbelief? (This view, of course, contradicts the postmodern, i.e., atheistic notion of art: the solipsistic presentation of the chaos of the universe—but that is art that only its practitioners seem to enjoy and not the kind of art Hitchens is citing.)

Nor is Hitchens’s dismissal of religious faith as something that arises from primitive fear and ignorance of the workings of nature as clever or new as he imagines. He only needs to go to one of his referenced authors and read in The Brothers Karamazov, "socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question." In Devils, Dostoyevsky exposes the self-delusion of the atheistic revolutionaries who presume themselves bold and more intelligent that the God-fearing around them. In a send-up of "free-thinkers" meetings, Dostoyevsky has a female student say:

"I mean, we know, for example, the superstition about God derived from thunder and lightning . . . It’s only too well known that primitive man, terrified by thunder and lightning, deified his invisible enemy, conscious of his own weakness with regard to them."

Hitchens, like the other dilettantes writing the books on atheism, now recycles this tired argument and sells it to weekend intellectuals striking a pensive pose with The New York Times and a $4.00 latte in front of them on Sunday mornings.

Another old example that Hitchens uses to claim atheists’ moral superiority is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac. But this citation betrays ignorance of explications made by everyone from Sunday school teachers to Kierkegaard. Hitchens brags that atheists make the best life in this life and see posterity in their children, whom they treat better than Abraham did Isaac.

But the question remains for the atheists: what do you do with children incapable of fulfilling your demands for immortality?

Hitchens also ignores Dostoyevsky’s prediction of the death toll from atheistic communist regimes. One of the characters in Devils refers to pamphlets that urge "total destruction, on the pretext that however much you try to cure the world, you won’t be able to do so entirely, but if you take radical steps and cut off one hundred million heads, thus easing the burden, it'll be much easier to leap over the ditch."

But if you go into a Christian bookstore you will not likely see Dostoyevsky on the shelf. Instead, you'll find pastel-covered saccharine tomes, the pious stories that the devout Catholic Flannery O'Connor disparaged.

The literalists, the theme park and museum builders, do to the Biblical stories what Disney does to fairy tales, stripping them of the tragic, the comic, and the sublime. In effect, what these people ask is just leave your mind at the door, get on the ride, and be happy!

But easy Christianity is vulnerable to easy atheism. Hitchens is too stupid to see the origin of art: the never-ending artistic imperative to wonder at and explore the mystery of God’s creation. It’s too bad that he has a readership prepared for him by an educational system that ignores, distorts, and disparages Christian art.