THE WANDERER, JULY 26, 2007

JOSEPH SOBRAN'S
WASHINGTON WATCH

Thank God for Atheists 

     The 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, 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!

                                        --- Joseph Sobran

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