Monday, December 19, 2011

A Bit More on Hitchens

Glenn Peoples, over at Say Hello to my Little Friend, has posted a rather scathing "tribute" to Hitchens almost worthy of Hitchens himself. He begins by noticing (for the sake of bucking) the supposed trend of "Christians coming out of the woodwork to say nice things about him" now that Hitchens is dead. One can almost hear the scorn in his voice.

I would certainly qualify as one of those Christians who, on hearing about Hitchens's death, felt moved to say something nice. To be honest, had he died immediately after I'd first read god is not Great, I wouldn't have had much nice to say and so probably would've remained silent. But the more I followed Hitchens' career in the wake of finishing Is God a Delusion?, the more...fond...I became of him.

And so I wrote the following response to Peoples' roasting:

I generally agree about the quality of Hitchens’ arguments, which were routinely more pugilistically clever than sound. But when it comes to the motivations at the root of those arguments, and their ultimate effect, I think there is much more room for debate.

As far as motivations go, the more I studied Hitchens the more I came away with the sense that underneath the bluster and sneering bravado was outrage at what he saw to be the range of foolishness and inhumanity in the world–and hence, at an even deeper level, a devotion to the true and the good. This is not to say that his response was the best one, or even an especially good one. It is to say that a devotion to the good and the true was the deep source of the passion with which he delivered even his most hostile verbal diatribes.

Of course I could be wrong about this–we cannot readily plumb the hearts of human beings. I certainly did not have this sense when I first started reading Hitchens on religion. In my book, Is God a Delusion?, I rarely had anything positive to say about him–and the general weakness of his arguments on a philosophical level meant I actually gave him less attention in that book than the other so-called new atheists. But as I continued following his career I just had this growing sense about his driving motivations–a sense that I still don’t have with respect to, say, Dawkins or Sam Harris. This sense led me to respond to him with almost a sort of affection (an affection that would, I’m sure, crumble if he ever turned his vitreol directly on me; so not an especially durable affection, but an odd kind of affection nonetheless).

But even if my intuitions here are wrong, there is something I am prepared to say with considerable confidence. Hitchens was a human being, and human beings have an inherent worth and dignity that warrants our respect–even in the cases of those who were not themselves prone to displaying such respect in their own rhetoric. It is quite possible that a roasting of Hitchens at his death–of the sort that Hitchens himself was wont to offer towards those he took to be particularly egregious fonts of foolishness and inhumanity–is a kind of sideways show of respect for him (Kant’s arguments about retributivism point in that direction). But my own inclination is to show my respect by reaching beyond the layers of crud towards what I take to be the mark of his creator at his core–and to live in the hope that this will be preserved long after his pugilistic screeds are forgotten.

I didn't, in that comment on Peoples' post, take up the issue of the effects of Hitchens' attacks on religion. Peoples claims that Hitchens "contributed nothing of value to public discussions around religion," and that his writings and public debates and talks ("circus antics") "only served to egg on the very worst intellectual element of atheism".

I'm not at all convinced that Hitchens' legacy can be reduced to this. One of the things Hitchens liked to do was attack our sacred cows with all the eloquent disdain of which he was capable. He was one of the few, for example, who was prepared to question the near-universal esteem in which Mother Teresa is held--calling her "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud" (among other things). His attack on her was certainly over the top. Unbalanced, unfair, unfitting, disrespectful--all of these are terms I'd be inclined to apply.

But sacred cows often operate as an impediment to intellectual honesty. And while Hitchens' attacks on sacred cows weren't themselves models of intellectual fairness, I suspect that, at least sometimes, his willigness to attack them created a public conversation that hadn't been there before. In place of nothing but pious repetition of Mother Teresa's virtues, Hitchens' attacks forced at least some people to actually come to her defense. And some of those defenses carried with them explicit concessions that wouldn't otherwise have been voiced, or at least wouldn't have been voiced in a way that made it into the broader public conversation. Perhaps there was something problematic--or at least worth critical discussion--about a nun devoted to giving love to dying orphans in an overpopulated city (in an overpopulated country, in an overpopulated world) while continuing to unquestioningly endorse the Roman Catholic opposition to birth control.

When it comes to religion, Hitchens was of course attacking sacred cows that were already being attacked in lively style by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others. Arguably, then, he didn't spark a public conversation that wasn't already well underway.  But it is surely the case that the New Atheists taken as a whole sparked a public conversation that had been largely sequestered up until that point in philosophy of religion classrooms and in the occasional (mostly ignored) blog. Prior to the New Atheist onslaught, my qualified and conditioned defense of religion--one which takes sharp issue with fanatical, fundamentalist, and science-hating expressions of faith--would have received far less attention than it did (and would likely not have been read at all by conservative religious believers). This is a point I've made in the past in relation to Richard Dawkins.

So, taken as a whole, the New Atheists did in fact provide a public-conversation-starting function. And Hitchens was a defining voice in that movement.

Let me be clear that this is not an unqualified defense of Hitchens' brand of rhetoric or of the New Atheist movement. One of the great dangers of the approach exemplified by the New Atheists is that the public conversation may become polarized to the point of ideological entrenchment. Going from a world in which the merits of religion go largely undiscussed except in rarified intellectual circles, to a world in which the discussion has the character of a shouting match across metaphorical picket lines, may not qualify as progress. And I'm not yet sure that this isn't the nature of the transition we've undergone.

In other words, there is something to Peoples' claim that Hitchens egged on some of the less intellectually respectable voices in the atheist community. My point is that Hitchen's legacy is more complex that this single effect. That complexity needs to be acknowledged and thought about.

And since I have more questions than answers when it comes to the ultimate impact of Hitchens' brand of anti-religious public rhetoric, let me open it up at this point to the thoughts of others: What do you think is the long-term legacy of Hitchens' brand of hyperbolic anti-religious campaigning?


  1. The main effect of Hitchens's rhetoric and prominence in debates about atheism is that it gave him a free pass with the secularist left, who are now singing his praises while overlooking his views other subjects, such as his full-throated support of the Iraq War and his misogyny (he called the Dixie Chicks "sluts" and "fat slags" because they criticized George W. Bush).

    My assessment of Hitchens's contribution to debates in recent years, both on religion, and in other subjects, is wholly negative. His views about religion were based on a one-sided, ignorant view of religion in which any religious person who espoused any human decency whatsoever could not possibly be "religious" (hence his casting of MLK Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as secular humanists).

    I refuse to give someone so willfully ignorant as to think that King was a "secular humanist" even the praise of being a "conversation-starter." The levels of ignorance which Hitchens's pathetic excuse for argument spread among his adoring fans far outweighs the value of getting a conversation started.

  2. Evan: I made the same exact point you make here about Hitchens' skewed view of religion in Chapter 1 of IS GOD A DELUSION?, focusing on his absurd attempts to say that King was a Christian in only a "nominal sense" insofar as he failed to condemn his detractors to hell, and his efforts to call Bonhoeffer's faith "an admirable but nebulous humanism." I culminate my case against Hitchens with the following words:

    "With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Bonhoeffer and King. When 'religion' is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that 'religion poisons everything.'"

    At another point in Is GOD A DELUSION?, I outline one of Hitchens arguments, lifting it out of its rhetorical dressings. What remains is so obviously unsound that I simply comment paranthetically, "Yes, Hitchens reasoning is EXACTLY that horrific," and then move on.

    That's not to say he always reasoned badly. But it is to say that he often delivered abysmal arguments in colorful dressing. As a philosopher, I don't think this is a good thing. And I don't want to excuse him for it or minimize it.

    But I also don't want to reduce a man's life and legacy to the worst he had to offer.

  3. Eric: I can understand that inclination, and I respect it. But because I am a graduate student in religious studies, my atheist/agnostic friends frequently expect me to "explain" the latest ranting and ravings of the Christian right to them, and their view of what "Christianity" is all about is formed from a conglomeration of the evangelical right wing on one hand, and people like Hitchens like the other. I just have a hard time liking Hitchens because it is his terrible arguments I have to spend all my time responding to when people want to know why I am a theist.

    I have not read Hitchens extensively, so I'm sure there are many things on which he could be commended. My issue right now is mostly with the hagiography developing in wake of his death, which is painting him as a saintly champion of freedom and reason when so often he was neither.

  4. HI Eric

    I remember, when watching a recording of the Hitchens/Lane debate, and wondering whether two protagonists hell bent on misunderstanding one another is still better than no debate at all. I'm still not sure.

    To the extent that polarising narrative feeds the tribal entrenchment of extremists, it's clearly a poor contribution. But to the extent that it allows the moderate and thoughtful a way into a public discussion, it is potentially excellent.

    As a personal example, I would never have come across this blog has Richard Dawkins not taken such a gleefully antagonistic stance towards religious belief. And this blog is, it turns out, an excellent forum for finding weaknesses in my intuitive response to religious issues, and so modifying them. Weirdly, the new atheists have pushed me from atheism into a genuinely agnostic space, from which my respect for informed religious belief has grown immensely.

    So long as the well informed and tolerant, as you clearly are, are prepared to rise to this challenge, this can perhaps be seen as part of the Hitchens/new atheist legacy.


  5. Hi Eric,

    I can only guess as to who Hitchens really was and what motivated him. One thing that strikes me as probable is that he was not really interested in theory - thus, criticizing his “bad” philosophy seems besides the point. I understand him more as a man of action: he fought against what he saw as evil, with all he got.

    I have the privilege of living in a society in which religion has no significant stronghold on public life and the religion I was raised in was rather a positive affair. So, I don't naturally have the animosity towards religion that many have.

    But, given more adverse circumstances (and there is no lack of horrors around the world), I wish I'd have the courage to do what Hitchens did, go down into the arena and fight for what I believe in. My fear is I wouldn't, choosing instead to play safe and be content with peaceful philosophical discussions. Something to think about.

  6. When I learned that Christopher Hitchens had died I must say I felt sad. A few days earlier I had by chance read a gripping piece of his about his illness (see: He was a good writer.

  7. Professor Reitan,

    I apologize for this comment being unrelated to your post, but I was wondering if I could contact you personally. Don't worry, it's nothing strange. It just concerns a few questions about your recent book, God's Final Victory. Would the e-mail address on your Oklahoma State faculty page be the proper way to do this? Thanks.