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The Reactionary Utopian – Classic
March 24, 2010

Thank God for Atheists
by Joseph Sobran

DUNN LORING, VA — A recent spate of atheist best-sellers continues to invigorate me and, I suspect, many other Christians. I love to see the best case the enemy can make. So far, it’s been rather pathetic.

Christopher Hitchens, the one I know best, is easily the wittiest and most entertaining of the lot. So far I’ve read his book, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything twice. It’s essentially one long sneer at what he calls “the celestial dictatorship,” childishly refusing to capitalize the name of the Deity (though he does capitalize those of pagan gods; if “god,” why not “zeus” and “venus”?).

One reviewer, Michael Kinsley in The New York Times, has credited Hitchens (or should I say “hitchens”?) with a brilliant career move, and one can hardly gainsay that! He has already made a fortune and appeared on countless TV shows, debating such leading theologians as Al Sharpton, who, I’m told, had the best of him. (How the mighty are fallen!) I suppose having Hitchens against us should be seen as our consolation for having Sharpton on our side.

It’s tempting to apply to Hitchens what Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Rousseau: “A man who talks nonsense so well must know he is talking nonsense.” But I’m afraid that would be unfair to Rousseau. Hitchens really seems to think he is weakening the case for God, just as he seems to think his obscenities have discredited Mother Teresa.

A persuasive arguer must at least be able to grasp the other side’s argument. Hitchens, who has tossed and gored me in political debate, here fails that basic test ignominiously.

Take that pseudo-witty phrase “the celestial dictatorship.” How much imagination, human sympathy, or just simple fairness does it take to understand that Christians see God not as a bullying ruler imposing His will, but as a loving Father more eager to forgive us than we are to be forgiven? I guess it’s not surprising that an old Trotskyist should conceive God in such crude terms of raw power, but not only is Hitchens not going to win Christians with this nasty stuff, he’s going to estrange reasonable agnostics.

For all I know, that’s what he’s trying to do. You can even see his book as a kind of spoof, as if he’s trying to see how much he can get away with — how many bald lies, slanders, absurdities, exaggerations, and flagrant self-contradictions.

I admit that this theory is as hard to sustain as the assumption that he is sincere, but consider: Hitchens has lost a lot of his old friends on the left, and much of his standing as an intellectual of distinction, by supporting the Iraq war that two of his hated popes have opposed. (Religion is the chief cause of war, as we all know. Except when it causes peace.) Could this book be a twisted attempt to recoup his prestige among the highbrows?

Then again, he told a New Yorker interviewer some months ago that he expects god Is Not Great to be the book he’ll be remembered for, which suggests that he actually wants to be remembered for this tripe. Hard to figure.

A couple of years ago Hitchens wrote a book in praise of George Orwell, another atheist, but a much more honest one and a far better writer of English prose. Orwell plays fair with the reader, never relying on jeers and name-dropping where a real argument is required. You can trust him to treat a serious subject candidly. He died, remember, when he was more than a decade younger than Hitchens is now — a startling fact, if you know nothing of them but their styles of writing. Only one of them writes with the voice of maturity.
Lewis and Chesterton

It really annoys me, I must say, when Hitchens condescends to C.S. Lewis, another master from whom he could take lessons in writing, thinking, and growing up, among other things. His startling lack of generosity to any Christian speaks volumes about his professions of humanitarianism. Even an ancient pagan could write, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Hitchens sounds much more like Shakespeare’s Malvolio: “You are idle, shallow things. I am not of your element.”

The atheists have got me reading Chesterton again, and as one thing leads to another, Chesterton has sent me back to Lewis. Only last week I was marveling at Chesterton’s genius; this week, after dipping into the anthology A Mind Awake, I marvel at Lewis’s. I also marvel at Hitchens’s confidence of his superiority to them both.

Hitchens even goes so far as to suggest that Jesus never existed at all. But as many have argued, it defies belief to suppose that four unbookish evangelists could have made up the most memorable, influential, and of course lovable character in human history, beside whom the prophet Mohammed is a mere wraith.

If it’s that easy, let Hitchens try his hand at the fakery he ascribes to Christians. A few deathless beatitudes and parables would satisfy me.

Maybe I’m just in a bad mood today, but Hitchens’s book strikes me as a puerile insult not only to God, to faith, and to reason, but also to everything that is good and honorable even in this world. No doubt this is because I’ve read it only twice. Maybe if I read it again I can do it justice.

There’s a sucker born every minute, P.T. Barnum observed, and the sales of these atheist tracts, of which god Is Not Great is only one, argue that he was guilty of gross understatement. On the one hand, Hitchens ascribes religion to “wish-thinking”; on the other, he blames it for creating a horrible and wholly false vision of Hell. Well, which is it? I can say only that it seems to me obvious which side is guilty of wishful thinking, starting with the pleasant idea that we will never have to answer for our sins.

And why are they so indignant at God for not existing? On their own premises it seems unfair — if not a little odd — to blame Him for that!

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Copyright © by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
All rights reserved. A version of this article appeared in Joseph Sobran's "Washington Watch" column in the July 26, 2007, edition of The Wanderer, the national Catholic weekly.. Editors may use this column if copyright information is included.

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