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 The Atheist’s Pulpit 

November 23, 2006 
Atheist's pulpitI just heard on the radio that the publication of O.J. Simpson’s new book has been canceled. Literature’s loss, I guess. This particular Literary Event of the Season was aborted because of Today's column is "The Atheist's Pulpit" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.widespread disgust that Simpson was still profiting from crimes he says he didn’t commit.

Atheist's pulpitLike many other observers, I take his denial with a grain of salt, notwithstanding his acquittal by a jury of his peers. In this, if nothing else, I find myself in agreement with Christopher Hitchens, a highly literate man whom I have met and liked, though I find his writing hard to follow. He usually leaves me clear enough about whom he hates, but less clear about what he thinks.

Atheist's pulpitHitchens leaves the impression that everyone actually agrees with him and knows he is right, but that most are too dishonest to admit it; hence his mission is less to refute their arguments than to reproach their hypocrisy. This attitude finds its expression in the relentless truculence of his prose. He has that least endearing of English traits: answering disagreements by getting supercilious. How persuasive you find him depends largely on how much you are intimidated by British snot.

Atheist's pulpitWriting in the Wall Street Journal, Hitchens is furiously indignant, as you might expect, that Simpson is so insouciant about murder and so willing to capitalize on it. When you have a lemon, they say, make lemonade, but this lemonade can’t be sweetened to Hitchens’s taste. To that extent, he is perfectly right.

Atheist's pulpitBut what puzzles me about Hitchens is that he is so passionately indignant about so many things. This is the curious thing about atheists, and he is a militant atheist. “Religion poisons everything,” he recently told an interviewer, and he has just written a book on this theme. Everything? Would that include Bach’s music? Thanksgiving dinner?

Atheist's pulpitWhy, oh why, are atheists always so indignant? If I were an atheist, and a believer in Darwin (which Hitchens also militantly is), I think I’d try to roll with the punches. My philosophy would be that this is just the kind of universe where Simpson’s behavior is more or less what we should expect in the ruthless struggle for survival.

[Breaker quote for The Atheist's Pulpit: The "poison" of religion]Atheist's pulpitBut atheists are also typically indignant that some people believe in God rather than Darwin, even though belief in God, however irrational, may deter some people from killing others. Granted, from an atheistic point of view this is often a disappointing universe, but if a bit of superstition makes it marginally more bearable at times, why complain? Out in the jungle, the lower animals, as we used to call them before Darwin abolished the distinction between “higher” and “lower,” kill each other all the time, with a refreshing lack of moral outrage. Why should man take it so hard? Isn’t what we call morality, in the end, a mere matter of taste?

Atheist's pulpitBut Hitchens can’t seem to let go of the idea that there is a difference between is and ought. For an unbeliever, he spends a lot of time thundering in the pulpit. He can be equally upset about Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein, both targets of angry Hitchens books (along with Bill Clinton, target of one of my own angry books). If you believe in God, you may find these furies lacking in a sense of proportion.

Atheist's pulpitHitchens calls both Simpson and Osama bin Laden “psychopathic killers.” Here again I’m puzzled. Just how is Osama bin Laden “psychopathic”? Given his premises, he seems pretty rational to me. But people who don’t believe in damnation have an odd way of believing in diagnosis. If they can’t say you belong in hell, they usually say you belong in a loony bin. It’s as if they hate God for not existing, and for consequently failing to damn people who need damning. At the same time, they think the whole idea of hell shows how cruel religion is. Go figure.

Atheist's pulpitBecause we need nutrition, we feel hunger. What does it tell us that all men have spiritual hungers? Only that they are all deluded? Or is it that they all crave the “poison” of religion? If the spiritual is a mere delusion, of which our animal nature has no real need, how odd that it should be a universal delusion, rather than a local cultural eccentricity.

Atheist's pulpitEven a Darwinian materialist, after all, might concede that piety can have its bright side, just as the love of truth or beauty does. For that matter, how does belief in evolution itself conduce to survival? If it’s necessary, why did it take mankind so long to think of it? If it’s not necessary, what purpose is really served by advocating it?

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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