Christopher Hitchens' illogical atheism

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God Is Not Great, by Christopher HitchensThe age of muscular evangelical Christianity has passed to be replaced by the age of muscular evangelical atheism. The Christopher Hitchens bandwagon was in town as part of Sydney's 'Festival of Dangerous Ideas'. On Saturday night the author of God is Not Great spoke on the topic of 'religion poisons everything'.

Religion, he claims, makes us serfs of God, an omnipresent father-figure who will not go away and let us all grow up. Time to cast off the shackles of belief and stand as adults without the fear of God looking over our shoulder.

Hitchens' presence caught my attention while driving home, as he was interviewed on ABC Radio by Richard Glover. I was struck by how quickly he spoke, presumably to cover up the gaps in the logic of his position. However the conversation moved on from God to Hitchens' support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; God once more disappeared from the public airways.

Listener response via SMS included some muddled defences of religion as well strident support for the author, but what caught my attention was one SMS that criticised Hitchens for his arrogance. It was impossible to claim to know that God does or does not exist, so it was arrogant for Hitchens to claim to know that God does not exist.

It seemed to me that this caller captured something of the 'spirit of the age'. For all intents and purposes God's existence, or non-existence, is viewed as beyond the scope of reason to settle. The existence of God is purely a matter of faith, not reason.

It is interesting to note how far we are from an earlier world view in Christianity where it was clear to everyone that it is possible to know God's existence through the use of reason, for example through Aquinas' 'five ways'. Indeed not so long ago Vatican I (1869–70) taught that it is possible to know the existence of God through reason. Vatican II repeated this teaching in the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.

The nature and causes of this shift have been exhaustively examined in the major work by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. There are religious, philosophical and political forces at work in a process that took centuries to arrive at our current cultural assumption, that God's existence lies beyond the reach of reason.

And it is just that, an assumption. Who among us have seen a proof that God's existence cannot be reached through the use of reason? We generally just take it as given. In fact we're embarrassed by the suggestion that God's existence might actually be something one can know through reason.

Religiously, Luther's split between faith and reason were a major factor; philosophically Kant added intellectual respectability to Luther by declaring God's existence to be beyond the reach of reason, though still a necessary postulate for practical reason and moral behaviour. But what interests me are the political forces at work.

The post-reformation wars of religion clearly gave God a bad name in the West. Religious belief had proved itself politically divisive and destructive. A new political modus vivendi needed to emerge which would prevent religious rancour from becoming social turmoil.

The Enlightenment solution was to marginalise religion from the public realm, to make it a matter of private choice, not public policy. Whereas the public realm was a realm of reason, the private realm was a matter of individual (and irrational) personal preference.

It was not that God was excluded from the public realm because God could not be known through reason; rather God must be excluded from the public realm, therefore God cannot be known by reason. If in fact God's existence can be known by reason, then the Enlightenment exclusion of religion from public debate cannot be justified. A God that can be known through reason is a dangerous political idea!

Of course all this is a long way from providing what would once be called a 'natural theology'. Taylor is not convinced such a project can be successful. He expends a large amount of energy simply trying to show that the exclusion of God does not necessarily follow from other assumptions that ground our culture. Atheism is not the only possibility. How far we've travelled from Aquinas' 'five ways'!

In the meantime Hitchens and fellow travellers such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are making a claim for the intellectual high ground. Belief in God is not just viewed intellectually as quaint, but as a sign of intellectual bad will, of clinging to a childish illusion. Perhaps we need to meet them head on at that intellectual level and revisit the teaching of Vatican I (and II).


Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod if Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He has recently written two recent articles on natural theology, 'In Defence of Natural Theology: Bringing God into the Public Realm' (Irish Theological Quarterly) and 'Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan on Natural Theology' (to appear in Irish Theological Quarterly).

Topic tags: atheist, Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Dangerous Ideas

 

 

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You are summising that everyone is Catholic or that the Catholic Church is the only true teacher of Christianity in this article. "God" is a man-made concept. So is faith. It is easy to pass everything off just by saying faith covers it all. This concept was probably invented so the gullible and illiterate of the world could be controlled by the more-educated, probably more devious members of society. Stop wasting your time on something that does not exist and do something useful.
lyn | 02 October 2009


Thank you for this article. In relation to your last point, Karen Armstrong's new work, The case for God (Bodley Head, 2009), points out that the ignorance that Hitchens, Dawkins and others show about theology and history makes dialogue with them impossible.

She notes that this is a recent development and that fruitful scholarly interchanges were held with non-believers until recently. I'd love to see Eureka Street do a review of Karen Armstrong's book which shows that religion and science were initially and ought to be separate domains and that a religious sensibility involves unknowing.
Helen Praetz | 02 October 2009


Christopher Hitchen's support for the Iraq and Afganistan wars is terrible blight on his intellectual credibility and shows that intellectual tools can be misapplied. On the other hand to say that the question of God's existence is beyond reason is really an exercise in childish circular logic. Truth is relative like time, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, who created God? We did. God is our early expression of the infinite.

Hitchen's is correct in my opinion, since Aquinas 5 proofs there has huge strides in both scientific and philosophical thought which make these past ideas seem childish. Are the people who hold them to be true childish, not necessarily.
Simon Millar | 02 October 2009


It is an indication these days of the sad state of the atheist department if it now has to rely on the likes of Christopher Hitchens to support its position - and to think it used to have the brilliance of Bertrand Russell.

Hitchens' Islamophobia has been noted on more than one occasion and could possibly lie at the root of his militant atheism.
Nathan Socci | 03 October 2009


"Who among us have seen a proof that God's existence cannot be reached through the use of reason?"

Surely a few thousand years worth of failed attempts by a multitude of the churches' finest minds counts as some kind of proof.
Brian | 04 October 2009


Whether Hitchens's atheism is illogical or not we cannot tell because he offers no explanation for his belief in the non-existence of God. He prefers the easier task of disparaging foundational religious teachers including Muhammad, Maimonides, Aquinas and Luther.

Hitchens’s book is diminished by his style – always arguing from an extreme perspective, never conceding the rational justifications for belief in God, rarely conceding the humanitarian decency of many religious people.

His style is that of political propaganda. For one so opposed to institutional religion, it is very dogmatic, very pontificating.

Hitchens's book provides a ready reference for many of the evils perpetrated by various religions throughout history, throughout the world. However he argues that the evil perpetrated by organised religion was or is inherent to the religion. He does not concede anywhere that many of the evils he refers to are human deviations from the teachings of the various religions and the model lives of the respective prophets.

For all man-made systems and institutions, perpetration of evil is always a risk, and often occurs. Religions are no exception, as attested by more reputable accounts than that of Hitchens. However such evil is not a rational justification of atheism.




Ian Fraser | 04 October 2009


It strikes me that both 'muscular' atheism and 'muscular' theism suffer from the same lack of humility in the face of the ultimate Mystery.
Patricia | 05 October 2009


Calls for debate on "topics" such as the (non-)existence of God remind me of the interminable calls for debate on the "issue" of global warming, such as generally from the peanut gallery over there on the right wing. Led by sophists, they want to engage their vocal tracts without actually opening their minds. Opening one's vocal tracts is, at least, beneficial to the health. However, it's not debate that they need, but schooling, ideally about the physics of gases.

That said, my (presumably limited) understanding is that no irrefutable evidence has been found for the existence of God. By the same token, no irrefutable evidence has been found for the non-existence of God.

What we can say is that no evidence has been found to suggest that, prior to the evolution of homo sapiens, God was worshipped anywhere here on earth.

In saying this, we must remember that the 'fossil record' remains incomplete.
David Arthur | 05 October 2009


If it is possible to know the existence of God through reason, why do we abandon it when the 'Christopher Hitchens bandwagon [is] in town...'?

'I was struck by how quickly he spoke, presumably to cover up the gaps in the logic of his position.' Come again Professor Ormerod?

Can't we discuss Hitchens and fellow travellers without resort to personal attacks?
Frank Golding | 05 October 2009


Although I accept as highly convincing the logic of Aquinas for 'something we call God', without an understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Gospel witness given by His family and friends, then even that insight, in the here-and-now, becomes as Thomas himself said , mere `hay`.

Reason and Revelation together, in balance, need to be offered in transparent, un-embarrassed good faith as our gifts to our secularised/consumerised society. The gifts will likely not be accepted by militant atheism , but they have their own uninformed and blinkered religion.
Eugene | 05 October 2009


The trouble with allowing faith-based, unprovable, undisprovable 'beliefs' as morally acceptable motives for action is that it opens the door to atrocity land..as is clear both from any unbiased reading of history (think Thirty Years War) as well as from recent and ongoing events. There are sadly abundant examples of faith-communities slaughtering one-another...in modern times, from Ireland, through the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, the Indian subcontinent...a good example to study is the catastrophe of Smyrna in the post World I era...or Poland after the Second World War..or....or..

Neighbors slaughtering neighbor families, children and all.

Irrational beliefs often motivates both noble (think Dr King) or wicked behavior...think Shia vs Sunni, Catholic vs Protestant....

No rationalist ever threw a Molotov cocktail at a school bus, a not, alas, rare form, of faith-based behavior.
Sam Abrams | 05 October 2009


I'm reminded of Wittgenstein responding to Christian belief: 'You see? It isn't a matter of faith at all!'. He had been struck by Kierkegaard's statement, 'How can Christ not exist, when I know that he has saved me?'

Both extremes in this 'debate' might do better to leave empirical and systematic dogmas behind, and genuinely befriend their shared humanity.
Fred Green | 05 October 2009


Though I find the argument about whether God exists fiery and fascinating, as a poet,
I am subject to the occupational hazard of recognizing that there are ways of knowing
things that exist outside intellect, Science and language. Certainly Aquinas’ 'five ways'
offer a compelling argument, but Bertrand Russell would give St. Thomas a run for
his money. The greatest art defies explanation, and exhibits mysterious power impossible
to parse. Even the most devout Roman Catholic has moments of being an Atheist,
for that is what doubt is. Both teams have good arguments. I happen to be a believer,
but I have the highest regard for Atheists and their viewpoints, and so does God, probably.

Michele Somerville | 05 October 2009


By definition 'God is infinite; humans are finite. Therefore no human can understand God completely.' This is both simple logic yet far reaching in consequence. While theology assumes faith when it by definition is 'faith seeking understanding' our debate needs to accept that not all who enter the debate share this faith. I find that I side strongly with those who want a robust and honest intellectual debate whilst giving due respect to the views of others. To do otherwise seems to me to be a contradiction in terms for what it means to be a Christian.
Ern Azzopardi | 05 October 2009


Perhaps Mr Hitchins conflates erudition with power and confuses the result with infallibility. If so he is a couple of hundred years behind the game, but at least he's playing the same game. Makes his views easier to judge, I guess.
Patrick Williams | 05 October 2009


So God does not exist but those fantastic and spectacular galaxies that we are shown photographs are fact.

Just what proof, apart from those photos - which can be "doctored" and "created" with computers - can a scientist/astronomer provide to support that awesome spectacle ?

Aren't we in fact taking all these scientific facts on faith - on the belief that these people are telling the truth !
nick | 05 October 2009


Having been a 'devout' Catholic (almost entered a monastery), and having long since left the Church (initially because of its vicious attitude towards gay people) I have looked @ both sides of the argument (much reading, including Dawkins and Hitchens). I can only ultimately conclude that proof of the existence of god or proof of the non-existence of same, is impossible, thus agnosticism can be the only credible intellectual response. A couple of millenia of hangings, drawings quarterings and burnings-@-stakes do not enhance historical Christianity's (or Islam's) claims or credibility. If one MUST have religion, the Buddha's teaching that proof or otherwise of the existence of god is impossible, so one may as well get on with the job of doing good without reference to metaphysical entities.

Incidentally, all the (non-ecclesiastically-based)reviews I read of Armstrong's book suggest that she also has to fall back on to the
'faith' position, to support claims of the existence of god.
Doug | 05 October 2009


"What has reason got to do with it?" John Spong offers a clear guide when he says that God can be experienced but not described. What sort of experience migh that be?

Two examples come to mind: 1. Jesus and many others would withdraw from the company of fellows and be close to nature in meditation and connection with the wonder of the world. We have more to wonder at than Jesus did because there has been so much probing inwards (at the detail and code if life) and outwards at the stupendous scale of the cosmos; 2. Jesus is reported to have said "when you are gathered in my name there I am among you." This alludes the the spiritual experience of being with others in a spirit of love. Reason does not drive that experience, but love does. The spirit that delivers joy here, and even a numinous experience at times can be called God.
Mike Foale | 06 October 2009


I think both Hitchens and Dawkins are a bit over the top in their criticisms of religion and I suspect seem to hone it rather savagely on Christianity but somehow appear to go "relatively" easy (emphasis added!) on the other two major religions Judaism and Islam. The essence of the arguments anyway can be found in the works of great thinkers of the 19th century, particulary Schopenhauer and Nietzche, two great atheists. So if you really want to know about essential atheism I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested to read the works of these two philosophers and you can forget about our contemporary writers. Actually, even Kant did not have the courage to go all the way, may be for fear of being ostracised.
John Paul | 07 October 2009


Bertrand Russell thought he could set up a system of logic from which everything true could be proved. However, Gödel proved that truth did NOT imply provability, no matter how clever your logic is.

In other words, Gödel's theorem allows statements such as "God exists" to be either true or false, without being able to provide a proof either way.

For the record, I believe God exists.
Peter Horan | 08 October 2009


The most insightful, as well as entertaining, critique of both Christopher Hitchens & Richard Dawkins, comes from the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton in his new book 'Reason, Faith and Revolution'.
THOMAS RYAN | 10 October 2009


Thanks for the reminders re Vat I & II re knowing God's existence through reason. However my experience with people like myself has been that "reasoning" between atheists / agnostics and 'believers' becomes winning an argument where everyone believes they are right! No winners but plenty of feeling!

Do we need to become more conscious of - closer to - our 'experience' of God, and then aim to speak of the qualities and characteristics of that experience. I remember being in a group where each one felt an object with eyes closed - then identify what we had felt. Answers ranged from leather to leaf, etc - apparently we had 'experienced' different objects. It was only when we began to speak of our experience of touch that we found we had similarities - and the more in touch each one got with their touch experience of the object, the more we became aware we had felt the same object. How close can I get to my experience of God?
Edward | 12 October 2009


Thank you … the world needs more deep thinkers like you . If our earnest prayers for specific requests have been answered even better than we had anticipated, why should we deny such a compassionate God? We now see that there is more to life than just he tangible world around us.

In our street a mother with a heavy drug-user daughter was beside herself with worry when the daughter left home to live with other drug-users. Our small community prayed for many months for the well-being of this girl - who quite suddenly returned home and successfully overcame her drug problem “cold turkey”. Some months later her boyfriend also did the same thing; both then returning to finish school and proud of their achievements. The daughter told us when she began to question her own behaviour. We cried tears of joy when we remembered that it was the day when we all began praying as a group. This is not the only prayer that we have had answered.

We are convinced that if all sincere people around the world could join together to pray to God for peace in the world, all war would be a distant horrible memory.
Gabby | 27 October 2009


The most 'dangerous idea' that Mr. Hitchens appears to fear himself is - that his readers might do their own research and that he would be found severely wanting. His half-truths and his incomplete; his selective '“reporting' would be revealed.

His lack of understanding of what actually drives evil men to use all kinds of pretexts for their evil deeds (e.g. he does not appear to understand that the uneducated are easily whipped up into a hysterical mob by evil men intent on exploiting these poor people in their own quest and lust for power; that these men would use as a pretext of a personal attack on Islam for their terrorism - instead of acknowledging the REAL cause: growing anger at indefensible foreign exploitation by a materialistic godless west).

His book sales would cease altogether and then he just might have to get a real job. Oh dear! That might mean no early retirement on the Riviera.
Barney | 27 October 2009


Lyn, (2.10.09) can you think of a better way of achieving peace in the world ... other than forgiving one another; “love one another as I love you”; “love even your enemies … doing good even to those who hate you”; with the resulting mutual respect and tolerance; of working towards a world-wide genuine “common good”?

Would not this kind of attitude result in a circuit-breaker in the unreasoning hatred that leads to war?

Lyn, do you have a better man-made solution? Would distrust, hatred, cynicism, ill-will achieve anything better?
Gabby | 27 October 2009


'If in fact God's existence can be known by reason, then the Enlightenment exclusion of religion from public debate cannot be justified. A God that can be known through reason is a dangerous political idea!'

I think the church is still smarting from the pummeling it took during the Enlightenment - especially in regard to natural history.

The best and the brightest have been attempting to prove the existence of God through reason for a few thousand years now.

And yet the church, during the majority of that time, had no qualms about wielding political power.

It does not surprise me that politics managed to creep into this article. Politics is inseparable from religion as religion is from God.

A God that can be known through reason may be a dangerous political idea. But until that day comes, religion has to be separated from public policy.

For injecting religion into debate about issues such as climate change and civil rights is also a dangerous idea - that is unless you are in the coal or oil business.
Aloysius Mcgillicuddy | 30 October 2009


Nice. Yes, each generation who re-reads re-written and multi-translated parts of other mixed parts of religious texts that either did or did not make it into the current bibles of the world, written by man. Is that faith is it? I'll stick to proven science thanks, I've seen enough death and destruction, rape torture and disease on this planet to know that your biblical God must be a sick twisted freak indeed if He is real. 'God's words have been twisted, beyond recognition, in order to build your planet Earth's religions' (Matt Johnson - The The).
Clinton | 08 November 2009


Thank you so much for your article. Would it be possible for you to forward me some tools & lucid arguments which I could use to support a rational & reasoned belief in God. This is very important to me as I firmly believe in God, have a University background in Science, currently work as a coordinator for a Parish's children's programs & a couple of my children at University appear to be turning away from a belief in God.
Mary O 'Byrne | 08 November 2009


But even the best contemporary attempts at a priori knowledge of God's existence are flawed (the most prominent being the modal ontological argument). Aquinas' five ways ARE child's play. This is not to say that a belief in God is childish, and to draw that long line is itself arrogant. It is a complete category mistake to suggest that the existence of God can be debated in empirical or rational terms, and history is on my side here. Aquinas' five ways are childish because they have a long history of being wrong, just like every other logical argument for and against the existence of God. It is, as Wittgenstein would say, like a fly in a fly bottle.
Chris | 14 November 2009


Sam, you are apportioning blame for evil in the world to the wrong source. You have very carefully ignored the existence of Satan and his evil works of destruction upon the world. Where do you think evil comes from? Your examples are just some examples of what Satan does in revenge upon God and mankind. If there is evil in the world, it is because Satan (like a persistent debt-collector) insists on delivering mankind’s “wages of sin”. There is always a heavy disproportionate price to pay for sin. And there is no such thing as a victim-less sin. When mankind sins (sin being a conscious rejection of God and His teachings) … he “makes deals with the devil” and invites Satan to take even more power in their lives and on the world stage. Mankind has been given free-will which God will not retract. It is every one of us who make the choices.

Therefore to achieve real peace in the world and real (and responsible) progress and real equality and dignity, mankind has the power to wrench back control (from Satan) and live according to very reasonable laws set down in the Ten Commandments (and - when examined - these still apply equally as much as they did thousands of years ago).

If mankind continues along his selfish, mindless, arrogant path of “greed is good”/“corporate psychopath” mentality - there can only be one ending: a very painful hurtling into Satan’s brick-wall. We all have a choice. Changing the world for the better (for ourselves and for the coming generations) takes courage. Change begins with the power of one - ourselves. This very moment. Mankind must turn back to a caring God, the source of all goodness.
Alana | 27 November 2009


To Mary O'Byrne(08.11.09): Of great assistance to you would be insightful scientific works like:
Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, (book: “Language of God”) a former atheist, who says he can now see that there is a rational basis for a creator and that scientific discoveries acutally bring man “closer to God” and works by Prof. John Polkinghorne (Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, distinguished in the field of elementary particle physics) eg The Quantum World [Princeton University Press]; Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology.Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1991;Quarks, Chaos and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996; The Quantum World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985; The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. (One of the best introductions to Polkinghorne's thought on classical Christian doctrines); and works by Dr. Dr Conor Cunningham.

You might also explain to your students that (in Genesis) the Hebrew word “Yom” does not only mean a 24-hour period, but also “an undefined period of time”. (and perhaps billions of years) - and because Polkinghorne confirms: “…the universe required ten billion years of evolution before life was even possible; the evolution of the stars and the evolving of new chemical elements in the nuclear furnaces of the stars were indispensable prerequisites for the generation of life. The laws that we understand as laws of nature had to be finely tuned to make this possible. The physical fabric of the world had to be such as to enable that ten billion year preliminary evolution to produce the raw materials of life. Without it there would not have been the chemical materials to allow life to evolve here on earth“ ; “ Of course, nobody would deny the importance of human beings for theological thinking, but the time span of history that theologians think about is a few thousand years of human culture rather than the fifteen billion years of the history of the universe“…“When they say "the world" they usually mean our planet earth, rather than the one hundred thousand million galaxies of the observable universe…”


Alana | 27 November 2009


Mary O'Byrne (8.11.09): also see the ABC TV Compass Programme (22.11.09) “Did Darwin Kill God” - for Dr. Cunningham’s explanation of how there actually is no conflict at all between Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Genesis. Cunningham says when Darwin’s theory was first published in Britain it was welcomed by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches. He claims the conflict between Darwin and God was manufactured by American creationists in the 20th century for their own political and moral reasons. Finally, he talks to some of the world’s eminent evolutionary biologists, geneticists and philosophers to examine whether the latest advances in evolutionary theory do in fact kill God. The verdict is no, no-one “killed God”. In fact, Darwin’s theory actually expanded upon and enhanced the (necessary at that time) metaphorical explanation of Genesis.

Alana | 27 November 2009


Virgin birth. Jesus as a divine human. 6-day creation, by fiat. Miracles. 3-in-1 Trinity. Resurrection. Bodily ascension into Heaven. Crucifixion as forgiveness for sins not yet committed. etc. and etc.

... and you have the nerve to call us atheists illogical?
Christopher | 17 February 2010


To correct a point, Hitchens does not assert that God definitely does not exist. He resents Christians' annexation of the concept of God, and frequently states that he is simply "happy that there is no proof of God's existence". This justifies his anti-theist stance. His position is that an Anti-theist need not prove anything, it is the place of those who claim to know the will of God, and pass dogma on this basis, who have their "work in front of them" by way of proving it.
Luke Mathers | 10 August 2010


The burden of proof is with the people declaring there is a god. Which one? You can't prove a negative. Something invisible looks a lot like something doesn't exist. This cathelic chuch base on a reglion that committed genecide, ok slavery, murdered children in a flood was involved changing the 2nd of the ten commandments due to selling statuettes for meney. The person exposing this was choked and murdered. You want people to follow this faith. It took modern hunalists to change the church so they cherry pick the good bits. Women are treated appallingly in this faith. It is man maid and the "shall not covet a neigbours WIFE proves it. Women can ignore the ten commandments.
Mark | 03 March 2012


Not sure if trolling, or just an idiot.
DavidHume | 10 December 2012


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