THE PROSPECT OF A HITCHENS STATUE, AND HOW THE NEW ATHEISM GETS IT WRONG
The recently deceased Christopher Hitchens was one of the journalists I looked up to while in college, his career suggesting to me that journalism encompassed far more than the boiler-plate, inverted pyramid stuff I had grown up reading in the daily paper and learning in my high school journalism courses.
I would expect that a lot of writers of my generation feel a similar sense of debt to Hitchens—for pushing the envelope so damn hard, for demonstrating how much invective the marketplace will tolerate and intermingling reportage and opinion.
When he died, I felt protective of that Hitchens and hoped commentators might refrain, for a time, from using his death as a cudgel. Hitchens had reached his zenith, in terms of name recognition, as a General in the Culture Wars—siding with the New Atheists in the battle over religion.
I dashed off a quick post, which concluded:
The vast outpouring of words Hitchens sent spiraling off his keyboard, over four decades, has amounted to something so great, and so vast, that the rest of us should respond with a respectful silence.
Sitting in silence isn’t the way of the world, and I am of course shoveling my own meager offering on you right now. But in the wake of Hitchens’ passing, I feel a need for white space. Just print the news of his death and follow it with what’s left.
I was of course under no illusions. I figured the death of Hitchens would keep tongues wagging and keyboards clacking forever. But when I heard about a petition being circulated requesting Hitchens be immortalized in a statue—in London, and Washington, D.C.—I laughed, presuming it to be a joke.
Hitchens seemed an altogether unlikely candidate for a statue. I doubt he would have wanted that kind of tribute. He wasn’t much for idolatry or hero worship, after all. More importantly, as a political polemicist, he wound up, over the last decade or so of his career, a man without a home. A product of and aide to the political left for so long, his late in life conversion to the neo-con position, touting the war in Iraq and urging along the war on terror alienated many of his previous fans. So the right could only appreciate one facet of his career and the left would choke on how it all ended. In practical terms, this hardly seemed the stuff of which men cast in bronze are made.
Thus perplexed, I sat down at my computer keyboard, wondering who would advocate for a Hitchens statue. And a silly thought passed through my mind: It wouldn’t be an atheist group, would it?
I only had a moment or two to ponder that. And in that space I thought about how contrary it would be to the entire atheist position to erect a statue of Hitchens. After all, atheists object to any appearance of religion in the public square. Surely, they would recognize that putting up a statue of a prominent, outspoken atheist because he was a prominent, outspoken atheist, would be a religious statement.
I typed “Hitchens” and “statue” into Google, clicked a link and, a moment later, sat viewing the petition itself. At atheist-reference.org. So. Well. Yeah.
Incredibly, it was a faction of atheists who were advancing this odd and, to my mind, boldly hypocritical idea.
A hero to many people… a hero to reason, logic, literature, intellect, research, truth, and so much more. He should be remembered, and one day when the world becomes a better place people will look at that statue and know that he was at the forefront of the struggle to make it so, and that without him we would not have arrived there.
We the undersigned ask you to please give permission and a plot for a memorial statue in a prime position within the City of London, honouring national treasure Christopher Hitchens for his contributions to the UK and the world. We will raise the funds and build it, we just need the place and permission. The statue will be made of tough stuff, as he was, and we will accept suggestions and/or votes from his many fans as to which of his numerous famous quotes to have on the plaque.
So much for my wish, then, that Hitchens’ death not be used as a cudgel in the culture wars.
Rather than holding a respectful silence, the new atheist movement—which proselytizes for its position in the same way priests cultivate penitents—was evidently ready to select a saint.
All right, I get it.
Before anyone flies off into the ether, I understand that requesting someone be immortalized in a statue is not the same as declaring a “saint.” But I do think the statue push suggests a similar zeal—enough passion, in fact, to overcome the sense of reason new atheists hold so dear.
Personally, I have long felt the new atheists lost the plot somewhere before completing their first sentence: “There is no… "
Lacking a God-ometer, I’m not sure precisely how one would expect to find evidence of God. So I believe it’s far from established that God’s existence is even an empirical question. And in my view, this is a problem that can be seen in Hitchens’ writing.
His masterful takedown of Mother Theresa is a case in point. A flesh and blood character who had undertaken a trail of documented actions, she stood, comparatively speaking, right in front of his poisoned pen.
Well, the deity is known to be one thing, first and foremost: unknowable. So the horrors Hitchens catalogued in his book God Is Not Great and onstage—the dead babies, doomed innocents and bereaved mothers—look multitudinous and impossible to reconcile from our perspective. But they are more difficult to judge from the vantage point of the creator that's been claimed, timeless and eternal.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8-9 (KJV)
Understand, I do not intend this essay as an argument for or against God. But I do intend every inch of it as a critique of the new atheism. Because this disconnect, between the varying concepts of God the Unknowable on display and the need new atheists have for a definition of God they can dismiss is a problem that I believe vexes all the new atheists in one form or another.
The new atheist tribe has put forward cartoonish images of God—from the old man with a long white beard to a Flying Spaghetti Monster. The data, however, suggests that believers are worshipping something far more complicated and indefinable. As I learned while researching Fringe-ology, University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Andrew Newberg even asked a mix of believers and agnostics and atheists—young and old—to draw a picture of God. He found that atheists and children were the groups most likely to draw an old man on a cloud-type God. Believers, on the other hand, tended to draw an abstract God—a being, in only the loosest of terms, best understood as a force or idea.
Unable to contend with such a slippery, not to mention Omnipotent character, the new atheists have largely been reduced to emphasizing any bad action the religious have undertaken while ignoring or diminishing any good done by believers or belief.
This, it seems to me, is a losing strategy. Because the central tenet of the new atheism—that religion “poisons everything,” as Hitchens put it—is demonstrably untrue. Religion helps people cope with chronic illness. In fact, merely inquiring about a religious or spiritual person’s beliefs has a palliative effect in hospital settings. Spirituality is an indicator of greater resilience. The spiritual do better, post-operatively. Prayer cultivates feelings of forgiveness. HIV patients do better by virtually every measure if they undergo a spiritual transformation. Repeating a mantra provides soldiers with a greater sense of existential wellbeing and reduces the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, has referred to raising children in a religion as “child abuse." The problem is that scientific data suggests the opposite is true: Michael J. Donahue, at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, and Peter L. Benson, now a Baylor fellow, analyzed previous research on “Religion and the Well-Being of Adolescents” and found that religiousness is associated with pro-social behavior and values, and negatively related to suicide, substance abuse, premature sexual involvement, and delinquency. More recently, in 2005, sociologist Christian Smith released some of the findings from his National Study of Youth and Religion. After breaking the kids in his survey into four groups indicating their degree of religious involvement— the Devoted, the Regulars, the Sporadic and the Disengaged—Smith found the closer the kids were to “devoted” the healthier their choices and attitudes.
Kids vested in a faith are less likely to smoke, cut class, rebel at home or in school, engage in sex at an early age, take drugs or feel depressed. They were more likely to feel satisfied with their physical appearance, plan for the future, have a sense of meaning in their lives, volunteer, participate in community groups and care about the poor, the elderly and racial justice.
I could go on. But my point here is simply that grievous inaccuracy is never a good strategy in debate or as a matter of persuasion. So I think the new atheists have often hampered their own cause just by being wrong. Tell someone who is receiving these benefits of religion that it “poisons everything” and they are likely to believe you—and the movement you represent—don’t know what you’re talking about. And beyond that, it seems to me, they’d be right. So yeah, the new atheist movement would be better off acknowledging the nuances of the debate. But nuance, with rare exception, doesn’t seem to be part of the basic new atheism skill set.
Religion contributes to division, the sort “us” versus “them” thinking that leads to war, goes the new atheist battle cry. It’s a clear, black and white argument, they make, visible in the pages of our history books. But that most secular of political movements, communism, produced copious bloodshed and misery and squashed the whole concept of individual liberty in the bargain. So clearly, the human condition, our penchant for selfishness and anger, catches us all—believers and nonbelievers alike. So…what exactly was their point about religion leading to violence, anyway? Because from the vantage point of history it seems abundantly clear that what leads to violence is being human.
In this context, what I’d really like to see is not talk of statues, then—or any similar glorification of the past. What I’d like to see is real progress: the religious, and atheists, and agnostics, holding not debates but panels on how we might build a better, more humane world whether we’re religious or not. But the next step for the new atheist movement is this weekend’s Reason Rally, a gathering in D.C. of nonbelievers, which will feature music, comedy and various speakers, including Dawkins and James Randi.
Division, it seems, really is part of the human condition.
A friend of mine, who is an atheist, has quickly grown tired of all the evangelizing for non-belief. “Atheists,” she told me, “shouldn’t have meetings.”
Now, please, before anyone takes her too literally, understand her meaning. “I thought the whole point of atheism is for people to make up their own minds,” she went on, “to be individuals and not get caught up in the kind of groupthink associated with religion.”
And that is the core of the problem with atheists erecting statues and holding rallies and behaving, in so many respects, like the religious they criticize. There is a groupthink at work, with all the attendant—and dangerous—in-group/out-group nonsense that can mar religion.
One of the most famous examples is Dawkins’ endorsement of the moniker “brights” as a means of identifying the irreligious. And what would the religious be called—dulls, or dims, perhaps?
Intriguingly, Hitchens admirably refused to fall into that particular trap, insisting that believers are often quite intelligent indeed. The problem is, he fell into so many others. And I don’t think the new atheist movement can ultimately withstand making him a public face for reason through the creation of two prominent statues.
In sum, there is, as I noted, the hypocrisy of erecting a public statue memorializing an atheist “hero.” And then there is the extreme inaccuracy and cherry picking of facts that comprises such a huge part of the new atheist message, which I think equates the movement more with a zealous passion than rationality. And then there is Hitchens himself.
I believe that Hitchens’ stature within the atheist community is more a matter of celebrity and style than substance. His anti-religious screed, God Is Not Great, didn’t qualify as philosophy and offered nothing new to the debate beyond his rancorous delivery. Readers related to the anger he expressed. But anger seems a dubious emotion with which to fuel a movement based on reason, doesn’t it? And anger is so much of Hitchens’ appeal—and downfall.
Let's take a brief tour of how he comported himself around the subject of America’s not so great war:
Hitchens referred to grieving mother, Cindy Sheehan, who began protesting the Iraq war after the death of her son, as a “shifty fantasist” among other things (and who can forget him going full grade school on us and calling the anti-war bluegrass singers the Dixie Chicks “sluts” and “fat slags?”). Worse, he defended the pack of neoconservatives who swore to us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Only, well, it didn’t. So who, precisely, was fantasizing?
But he doubled down, accusing those who complained when no weapons turned up of childishness. Right. As if going to war under false pretenses was equivalent to not receiving the sweetie we’d been promised.
Adam Shatz, in "The Left and 9/11," captured the later-days Hitchens, a strangely bloodthirsty sort for a man of reason.
“Hitchens's enthusiasm for the war on terror has led him to adopt some strange positions,” writes Shatz. “You would think that, as a longstanding champion of Palestinian rights, he would be disturbed by Rumsfeld's cavalier talk of the ‘so-called occupied territories’ and Bush's crude ultimatum to the Palestinians to either vote out Arafat or continue living under occupation. But Hitchens told me that while he objects to ‘that whole tone of voice,’ he prefers Bush's ‘tough love’ to the ‘patronization’ of Clinton's peace negotiators. Nor is he troubled by the mounting civilian toll exacted by America's crusade in Afghanistan. ‘I don't think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged,’ he says.
“What about the use of cluster bombs?
“‘If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops,’ [replied Hitchens] ‘...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, 'Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.' No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words.’”
Corey Robin wrote a particularly lucid, and devastating, attack on Hitchens, in which he quoted the above and this bit, originally published by the great man of logic and reason in “Images in a Rearview Mirror.”
“I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last,” writes Hitchens, “once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”
These passages—his emphasis on pellets piercing the Koran, his confession at exhilaration at the sight of the fallen Twin Towers and the prospect of open warfare—reveal a hatred in Hitchens’ heart. And so, well, maybe there is no point in holding anything back. Maybe we should forget silence entirely. Maybe Hitch, and the whole idea that he deserves a statue, simply have it coming. Because it is one thing to acknowledge that Hitchens assumed a towering reputation in literary circles. And another to take the charitable view that the whole point of the exercise, for him, was to somehow build a better world. (I actually subscribe to this last theory myself, as even in his worst moments there was some sense that he was trying to harangue everyone toward civility. Misguided, he was, but of good intention.) It is yet another thing entirely, however, to suggest that he deserves a statue—and immortalization as a figure representing the values to which we should aspire.
They aren’t tallying the “no” votes at the web site pushing for a Hitchens statue. But I vote “no” just the same. And I humbly suggest that the ability of so many atheists to look past Hitchens’ often loose relationship to logic and reason and proclaim him a “hero”, suggests that believers and disbelievers really do have quite a lot in common, including an ability to see what we prefer to see while glossing over the rest.
Perhaps we should start focusing on our commonalities, rather than the things that divide us.
Perhaps we should find some statue that exemplifies the ways in which we are the same.