TIA Tuesday: The Salvation of Christopher HitchensJuly 22, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Last week, Vox was telling us that Christopher Hitchens had essentially eviscerated his own arguments, thus “proving” his intellect to be a fatally flawed and impotent one. This week, he’s going to argue that Hitchens is just about ready to become a Christian, or at least a theist. (Hmm, I wonder if those two claims are supposed to be related?) He bases this latter claim on Hitchens’s “four irreducible objections to religious faith.”
If these four objections are truly the basis for Hitchens’s hostility towards God and religion, then the irrepressible atheist may be much closer to returning to the faith of his fathers than anyone suspects, because one of these objections is trivial, one is irrelevant, and the other two are simply wrong.
Hitchens on the verge of seeing the light? This should be interesting.
Let’s have a look at each of these four objections, and Vox’s corresponding response.
1. It wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos.
Hitchens might as reasonably reject science on the same petty basis, considering the wide range of abiogenetic hypotheses, cosmological creation myths, and astrophysical fiction currently on offer. Is he similarly opposed to DNA because Francis Crick subscribed to the Directed Panspermia hypothesis and an X-Files variant of Intelligent Design dependent upon space-traveling aliens?
Vox falls into two errors here. The first and most obvious is that science does not embrace a “wide range of abiogenetic hypotheses, cosmological creation myths, and astrophysical fiction[s]” as being the definitive answer to the origins of man and the cosmos. Scientists are considering and investigating a wide range of possibilities because we don’t yet know what the true answer is. And that leads to Vox’s second error: assuming that you can’t know which answers are wrong until you know the answer that is right.
Quick, what’s the exact value of the square root of pi? To the last decimal place? It’s an irrational number, it doesn’t have a last decimal place. But you don’t need to know the exact value of the square root of pi to know that it is not seventy-two. Likewise, you don’t need to be able to trace out the precise sequence of chemicals leading to the origin of life on earth to know that a story about talking snakes and a magical worldwide flood is clearly not a historically-accurate account of how our planet became what it is today. Truth is consistent with itself, and an objective, scientific investigation into real-world truth consistently reveals characteristics of reality that are more consistent with the scientific hypotheses than with any Bronze Age myth. (There, I used “Bronze Age” correctly this time.)
2. It combines the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism.
This is alliteration, not a genuine objection. And it is incorrect. Orwell’s “boot in the face forever” is arguably the best conceptual expression of the maximum of servility and it is a secular one, given religion’s preference for eschatological scenarios over steady-state theories.
Vox seems (or pretends) not to have noticed that little word “solipsism” there. Even if he had, Orwell’s “boot in the face forever” is merely an external, physical coercion. You can use physical force to demand both “right acts” and “right thoughts,” but no dictator, not even Hitler, has ever had the power to invade the secret, inner thoughts of the heart, the way God supposed to be able to do. While the worldly dictator can demand outward servility, only religion can carry this subjugation all the way into a person’s private thoughts. So Vox’s rebuttal is, in fact, not true.
His omission is even more telling, because no worldly dictator can demand solipsism. It would be counterproductive; it’s hard to persuade someone to submit by convincing them that they’re real and you’re not. The peculiar nature of the Christian faith, however, is that it forces the believer to give their allegiance to a “higher” truth, a truth that is not bound to the “mere” constraints of mundane reality, but that is finer and more spiritual than this coarse and unredeemed matter. Divorced from the constraints of observable and verifiable reality, however, the Christian “truth” is of necessity a subjective reality, and one that draws the believer into a functionally solipsistic world view, even if it is not explicitly and intentionally defined as such. Indeed, the Republican war on science is just one outward manifestation of this Great Divorce.
What Hitchens is highlighting with this objection is the insular and self-referential pattern of religious thought that manifests itself when gullibility displaces true faith as the measure of spirituality. Define “spiritual maturity” in terms of the things a person can drive themselves to believe despite all real-world evidence to the contrary, and you cannot help but end up with a mind that is not only wrong about the real world, but that is thoroughly and invincibly immunized against it. This is the kind of self-contained reality in which blowing up innocent men, women and children can become a virtuous and pious act of service to God, and that makes it a fitting target for Hitchens’s objection.
Now, I disagree with Hitchens quite a bit on the topic of whether “religion” really poisons everything. I blame superstition and militant ignorance, not religion, though I grant you it’s a distinction that is often difficult to make. The innocuous religious beliefs are made largely irrelevant by their very inoffensiveness—it’s the offensive and intrusive ones that dominate the debate, and it is these against which the wrath of Hitchens is directed. And with that I quite agree.
3. It is the cause of dangerous sexual repression.
There is loads of evidence that it is not sexual repression, but the absence of sexual repression that is dangerous. Abstinence never killed anyone, but AIDS certainly has. Male homosexuals are the least sexually repressed humans on the planet; they also happen to enjoy the shortest life expectancy. While sexual repression might explain the horrific history of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergymen, it does not explain the much greater incidence of sexual abuse by secular educators in the public school system.
Apparently, Vox isn’t too clear on the difference between sexual responsibility and sexual repression. Nor does he show any signs of understanding the psychosocial consequences of sexual repression. Our culture is the product of centuries of Christian repression of normal, natural sexuality; its values and censures have insinuated themselves into the Western mind to the point that words like “dirty” and “sinful” and “nasty” are glib euphemisms for “sexual.” Is it really so hard to see the connection between centuries of treating sex like something wrong and unacceptable, and the emergence of predatory sexual practices based on secrecy and the exploitation of the easily-intimidated?
And please, let’s not have any smarmy lectures about gay promiscuity from anybody who thinks “marriage” should be legally defined in such a way as to discourage committed long-term gay relationships. Amend the US Constitution to protect the right of gays to marry each other, and then we can discuss how immoral a lack of marital fidelity is, gay or straight.
4. It is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.
This is an irrelevant and tautological statement. “I object to something in which I don’t believe because it is not true.” All human action is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking, indeed, all technological advancement is. It is not a reasonable basis for an objection to religion; the statement might as easily be applied to the airline industry.
Once again, Vox completely misses (or pretends to miss) the point Hitchens is making. Truth is consistent with itself. When believers prefer to believe what is inconsistent with reality instead of accepting the self-consistent real world sort of truth, they are embracing conclusions that are grounded on wish thinking instead of being grounded in verifiable reality. When people claim, as the Bob Jones home school “science” curriculum claims, that in every case where the evidence contradicts the Bible, it’s the evidence that’s wrong, then people are basing their conclusions on wish-thinking instead of on the real world. It is precisely this displacement of real-world truth with contradictory and inconsistent beliefs, which Hitchens finds objectionable. Airlines have nothing to do with it.
So sorry to disappoint, but when Vox claims that Hitchens is surprisingly close to returning to the faith of his fathers, it just goes to show Vox’s poor depth perception. Hitchens’s objections are solid and well-grounded, and Vox’s replies merely flippant and insubstantial.