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The believer's atheist

The believer's atheist

By Ross Douthat
The New York Times

Of the many remarkable things about Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday after one of the most prolific and provocative careers in modern Anglo-American letters, perhaps the most remarkable was how much religious believers liked him.
Not all believers, of course: When Hitchens’ esophageal cancer diagnosis became public last year, the famous atheist took obvious pleasure in quoting the none-too-Christian sentiments that bubbled up on various religious blogs and message boards (e.g. “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?”). But in the world of journalism, among his peers and competitors and sparring partners, it was nearly impossible to find a religious person who didn’t have a soft spot for a man who famously accused faith of poisoning absolutely everything.
Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already – a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) This is not a sentiment that was often expressed about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other member of the New Atheist tribe. But where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost filial connection that many Christians felt for him.
Some of this reflected his immense personal charm, his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously. But there was something deeper at work as well. American Christian intellectual life is sustained today, to a large extent, by the work of writers very much like Hitchens – by essayists and journalists and novelists and poets, from G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis to W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, who shared his English roots, his gift for argument and his abiding humanism.
Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’ case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and “Brideshead Revisited” surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.
In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so. At the very least, Hitchens’ anti-religious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles – a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.
This air of rebellion did not make him a believer, but it lent his blasphemies an air of danger and intrigue, as though he were an agent of the Free French distributing literature deep in Vichy. Certainly he always seemed well aware of the extent to which his writings traded on the unusual frisson of saying “No!” to a supposedly nonexistent being.
Perhaps he was a little too aware. Like most writers of a religious persuasion I was once enlisted to publicly debate Hitchens, with predictably disastrous results for God. But my strongest memory comes from a Washington dinner party two years ago, when he cornered me in the pantry and insisted on having a long argument about the Gospel narratives. The point he was particularly eager to make was this: “Suppose Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead – what would that prove, anyway?”
It’s a line whose sheer cussedness cuts to the heart of Hitchens’ charm. But it also hints at the way that atheism – especially a public and famous atheism – can become as self-defended as any religious dogma, impervious to any new fact or unexpected revelation.
For Hitchens, those defenses stayed up till the end. His last word on the possibility of conversion was at once characteristically dismissive and characteristically protective of his hard-earned reputation as an Enemy of God: “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.”

In his very brave and very public dying, though, one could see again why so many religious people felt a kinship with him. When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” – that “death is no different whined at than withstood.”

Officially, Hitchens’ creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.

My hope – for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead – is that now he finally knows why.

Updated : 2022-05-17 23:17 GMT+08:00