Christopher Hitchens set a challenge for Catholics

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair: last year they debated whether religion was a force for good in the world (courtesy of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation)

One can learn much about the current state of religious and secular opinion, and the confidence of their exponents, from responses to the death of Christopher Hitchens. Among Christian commentators it is hard not to sense strains of shaky self-righteousness in expressions of satisfaction that he might now recognise the reality of God. Among secularists, meanwhile, there is evident frustration at his compromising his assault on religion by siding with some Christian critics of Islam, and in being less that wholly committed to current liberal agendas, for example on health (smoking and drinking) and equality issues (women and the environment).

In fact, Hitchens’s position on religions was straightforward: insofar as they postulate or assume the existence of supernatural realities they are all equally false, and to the extent that they propose a link between belief and conduct they are all potentially threatening. As he put it, on more than one occasion: “They are all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.”

The difference among them, in his view, is that the greatest actual threat comes from Islam. This has two aspects: one directed against the liberal, secular West and the other against Israel. Hitchens was fond of saying that all that stands between the victory of Muslim theocracy and the freedom of the secular West are the 82nd and 101st US airborne divisions. The remark was characteristically provocative, making it clear that he thought that the contest with religion may ultimately be a matter of armed force, and that, despite their own protests to the contrary, the western powers are involved in a military campaign against Islam. The problem for his fellow secular liberals is that he welcomed such a campaign and was happy to describe it as a “crusade”.

Such opinions were expressed in a manner that was at times languid and occasionally urgent, but never faltering. His fluency made him a compelling speaker to listen to, but it also raised a question: was his an acute analytical mind, dissecting and composing reasoned arguments, or was he a rhetorician sustaining a mellifluous but often merely associative flow of words? Doubtless the truth lies between these, but I think it moved steadily closer to the latter.

As I write, I have in front of me a copy of God Is Not Great open at the title page on which is inscribed: “To John Haldane, well met in Oxford, Christopher Hitchens.” The occasion to which this refers is a debate we had in the university’s Sheldonian Theatre in 2010 on “Secularism and Faith in the Public Square”. One notable feature of the occasion and the commentaries following it was the presence in force of secular humanists, for whom there is no serious question but that religion is false and that the only attitude to take to it is denigration. To such people Hitchens was a hero and the question of analysis and argument is of little interest. In this respect they are the counterparts of evangelical fideists for whom the only task in debate with religious sceptics is conversion or defeat.

Interestingly, Martin Amis, Hitchens’s closest friend and occasional rival, is disposed to agnosticism, rejecting the certainties of believers and unbelievers in favour of a questioning attitude to the universe and human existence. I think that in his heart Hitchens recognised that this was the position to which such “philosophical” reflection as he might ever have practised should have taken him. Had it done so he would have been more open to serious, probing discussion. But he was not, and that I think indicated a certain intellectual dishonesty. Like believers who keep themselves busy in social causes or ornate liturgies and make these the locus of their religion, Hitchens was unwilling to face the deepest questions or was in flight from them. In his case, I think this had to do with the practice of polemical journalism, and later public speaking, and with the success and popular following these brought him.

I first read and admired his work in the 1980s and enjoyed his study of Anglo-American political and cultural relationships, Blood, Class and Nostalgia. But by stages (and probably from the beginning) he showed an undisciplined mind and one that required the reactions of an audience. Discursive interaction is older than Socrates but in the latter it took the form of probing and intricate argument. Hitchens was less interested in dialogue than theatrical monologue accompanied by cheers or jeers, and he needed both to maintain him. Also, he did not open himself to serious intellectual questioning. Indeed, in this regard his vice was the common one among the once precociously bright, namely mental laziness.

Unquestionably, however, some believers will feel that with his passing one source of unwelcome challenge is gone. I don’t think he will be easily replaced in the front line of anti-religious polemics, not least because he was undeniably attractive in a louche, dandyish, sharp-witted way. Yet rather than speak piously about the fate of his soul or dismissively of him as another “atheist fundamentalist” (which he was not), we would do well to consider why religion had no appeal for him and why unqualified hostility to it is a growing phenomenon.

Hitchens is a case worth studying. He is more interesting than Dawkins because evidently more psychologically complex and humanly engaging. If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong? Or, put another way, what can we learn from his attitude about how to understand our own religious claims and about how our lives reflect them? Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is your grace and your holiness?”

This challenge has particular force against those who downplay human sinfulness and the extent of depravity. Not until we have taken seriously the idea that the effects of sin and ongoing sinfulness corrupt the soul will we be in a position to fashion an effective counter to the charges Hitchens brought against Catholicism and Christianity more generally. It will not be to say that we are better than he claimed. Rather, we need to explain effectively our failings and those of all humanity in terms of a shared supernatural identity. To which we might add, adapting a saying of Wilde’s, whose style of wit Hitchens sometimes echoed: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking to heaven in hope of salvation.”

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews and was recently re-appointed by Pope Benedict as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture