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Archive for January 6th, 2012

I was going to let Christopher Hitchens rest (lest he is in heaven chafing at the sound of me typing) but then got a nose-full of this warm, cuddly obit, for him by The New York Times‘ boy conservative Ross Douthat.  I’ve written here before that Douthat as a thinker gets everything backward, not looking at the world with true inquisitiveness so much as constantly articulating an a priori conservative identity for himself that the world and facts conform to later. (We start with a love of Ronald Reagan and then try to figure things out from there.) Now he fondly teases another dead man. He cites Hitchens’ bluster about godlessness and says it tacitly reveals what must have been some sort of basic belief in a deity–that Hitchens was constantly saying “no” to a non-entity and was thus not atheist but rebel (Like Job!) So, really, could his anti-theist polemic have happened in a vacuum? Wasn’t there some entity there to argue with? Or, as Descartes argued, isn’t the ability to grasp a perfect being proof that that being is real?

Actually, Hitchens spent a great deal of time trying to find an antidote for this age-old fallacy, one that in one form or another has befallen many Christian intellectuals, that the very concept of a God (or the fight against the concept) is proof he exists. This 1,000-year-old plus ontological hard sell, pushed by Descartes most famously, has been flushed down the toilet often, by Kant most memorably, who said that this reasoning boils down to a maddening tautology, “We know God is because God is.” Hitchens himself took to task the similar logic of C.S. Lewis: Anybody who came up with the idea of a God would have to be mad … so the fact that somebody came up with it despite it all that means God’s existence must be true!

It would have been a really funny, ironic article if Douthat had merely said Christians loved Hitchens because he was a really smart and charming atheist and just too damn irresistible to hate and because love is (or ought to be) the Christian tool with the most reach. It’s another thing to try to indoctrinate a dead man after the fact into a silly cosmology, try to make a net wide enough for Hitchens’ clear-eyed rationalism to be somehow folded into Douthat’s fairy tale and made whole with it. If I were Hitchens, I’d prefer it if somebody told me I was going to rot in hell while fox hounds snacked on my intestines.

The end of the article is simply an insult to everybody who thinks: “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor,” says Douthat. OK. If I am not allowed to call Douthat stupid (after all, he went to better colleges than I did), then I can at least call this sentence infuriatingly patronizing. If you see off to the right of my page here, there are some 34 pieces of music. I want to testify that every one of them was made while I was drunk on the pernicious wine of rigorous atheism–the knowledge that there is no God (and perhaps even no listeners). I’ll be harsher. I’ve lost relatives, some of them as close to me as my heart, that I have no hope of being reunited with ever. That sad fact is made warm by the knowledge that loving them was a process, that I loved them first with the selfish love of an infant, then that of an adult with some understanding. That love was born, grew, matured. And all processes come to an end, something children come to understand, at least seemingly until they turn into adults. I don’t need a “God” to make those relationships meaningful or the false idea of perpetual life to give them a perspective they don’t require or deserve.

Douthat, who has in the past arrogantly imposed rigidity in the thinking about international affairs (in Libya, for instance) as a cold slap at inchoate humanitarian aims, suddenly falls short in sangfroid when it comes time to attack the most horrible idea: hope is no excuse for illusion.

Perhaps we should turn to Spinoza, who did talk a lot about God, but tended to see “him” as process, as nature in motion, unfolding in mind, which was inseparable from the imperfections of the wasting body, and not as a white bearded celestial mountain man watching over us. All humans are blessed with intuition, and feeling the presence of a greater power is part of that particular spiritual talent. I guess you could make the sensual argument: just because we perceive the color red on a tomato doesn’t mean the color red doesn’t exist, and thus if we feel a God there must be something to that. But intuition might also lead you to a plethora of Gods, goddesses, voodoo rituals, wiccan love spells, space aliens and other ideas your intellect cannot be accountable for and reason won’t accommodate. It leads you to abdicate your responsibility to your here and now.

I don’t think Ross Douthat is dumb; I just find him, for lack of a better word, incomplete. But we’re all a lot more incomplete without people like Hitchens. So maybe I’m not so much angry at the article as sad, because now Hitch is gone and all of us incomplete people are running around free of his delimiting logic to continue chattering our incomplete ideas thinking we’ve been made, by some abstract god, whole.

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