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Christopher Hitchens, New Atheist

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Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, started out as a correspondent of The International Socialist and went on to write for publications like The New Statesman, Nation, and The Daily Express and published a number of books besides, is a frustrating case for me. On one hand he displayed enormous strength of character and honesty when he split with much of the left over the Salman Rushdie affair and went on to criticize the left rightly on a number of points including their stance on the Iraq war, and then on the other hand his treatment of religion in general and Christianity in particular is so tendentious and so full of falsehoods, distortions, and weird lapses of judgment, and so free or any sort of charitability that I find it hard to reconcile with his other writing.

Nothing illustrates his attitude toward Christians better than his condemnation of Mother, now Saint, Teresa.

St. Teresa began her career as a servant of the poor in Calcutta when she was still young and when her order had nothing to offer the poor other than their sympathy, the Word of God, and some simple care. As the years past and the fame of her work grew money began to pour into her mission, but the care that she and the sisters of her order offered the poor was the same -- sympathy, the Word of God, and some simple care, a place to stay, clean linens, etc.

Why, asks Hitchens and other secular critics, didn’t Mother Teresa use this tremendous wealth she was given to provide those poor people with actual modern medical care? Why did all the money go to the Vatican?

Hitchens acknowledges that St. Teresa was serving according to her own beliefs. It is those beliefs, Catholic doctrine, to which Hitchens apparently objects. He also objects to the perception that St. Teresa was physically helping the poor medically, when in fact she was giving what might be called hospice care. She did have local doctors helping provide care in her missions, but care was limited. Hitchens thinks that people were being fooled into thinking that St. Teresa was giving the people medical care, but I doubt that any faithful Catholics or other Christians held any such misconception about her.

St. Teresa’s attitude came from her Catholic beliefs. To the Christian, good works done to glorify God are a blessing to the giver and the receiver. Good works done without God are vanity. State enforced charity in the form of socialism, preferred by Hitchen’s and St. Teresa’s other critics, is vanity. For St. Teresa and her followers charity must be personal, voluntary, inspired by God, and to glorify God. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. Trying to hold back the tide of poverty, disease, and death is ultimately vain. But there is One who will one day take us all beyond and above all of that. St. Teresa meant to keep her eye on that prize.

She did what she could to help the people, but she did it mainly to save their souls and the soul of everyone who would hear of her work. The money she received by her lights was better spent in pursuit of that goal, which was to be carried out by the rest of the Church and not just her mission. And of course if you want to spread the Word of God and care for the poor to dictatorships and countries in the grip of totalitarianism it’s necessary to go to the leaders of those countries for permission to do it, hence her associations with tyrants and dictators that Hitchens criticizes.

St. Theresa was true to her own best ideals of what it is to show people mercy and loving kindness. To those without faith the only real mercy is the mercy we get in this life. There is no other. They think that those who think otherwise are deluded and are trying to delude others. So they criticize her for her lack of social services, as if she should have been acting like the ideal socialist government.

Hitchens accused St. Teresa of being a “fanatic”. Yes, St. Teresa really, really did believe what she said she did and acted accordingly.

Hitchens criticized St. Teresa for being pro-life also, sneering at the “old nun” who told others not to have abortions. Oddly enough Hitchens himself was pro-life but would criticize St. Teresa on that point anyway; presumably because she wasn’t pro-life in the correct way – as a socialist.

The extent to which Hitchens just didn’t get it was illustrated by his reaction to St. Teresa’s canonization. He thought the Pope had cheated and rushed the process. He had testified against her to the Vatican council and thought his evidence damning. He just didn’t see that the clergy and the Church judged St. Teresa using a completely different set of standards than he did. It was odd that Hitchens thought that the Church would respond to his strictly secular line of reasoning.

I was never able to find any comments St. Teresa made about Hitchens or whether or not she knew of his work. I’d assume that if she had she would simply have offered a prayer for him that he might increase his understanding.

Hitchen’s book has a number of howlers on the elementary aspects of Christian belief. This is illustrated by the example of his insisting on taking a literal reading of the Bible and trying to tell Christians how they should, in light of that reading, believe and act. As a result he thought that Christians should all be living a life of poverty, walking around in crude sandals and robes like Jesus and the Apostles did. Like most unbelievers, in attempting to interpret scripture he just makes a hash of it. The fact that most Christians live as any normal modern people do, attend to their religious duties voluntarily, obviously get a great deal of satisfaction out of their religious practices, and do a huge amount of charitable and beneficial work for other people beside, is simply dismissed.

Much of the rest of Hitchens boils down to going on and on and on, pointing how silly it is to believe in a Sky God and all the rest. How stupid can people be to believe such? How silly of them to do what they do in response to their faith. Look at these beliefs of theirs, he says, how silly! But St. Paul told Christians that normal people would all think they’re crazy, so although many Christians are offended by such talk they shouldn’t be surprised by it. It’s by an inexplicable and unearned miracle of God that any Christian believes as he or she does. And, like any miracle, it goes against reason, against logic, and against the world.

However, even using a strictly logical, fact based approach to judging the Christian religion and many other religions besides, I find it impossible to make any sense of Hitchen’s assertion that religion is a force of evil. How can anyone look upon the billions of religious people in the world, going about their religious duties peacefully of their own free will, doing so much to help others and benefit their communities, and obviously getting a great deal of satisfaction and benefit out of it themselves, and conclude that religion is entirely evil? There’s a screw missing there. Hitchens doesn’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. He throws out the basin, the sink and most of the plumbing besides. The implication is that if only we’d get rid of religion people would act rationally and many of the world’s woes would go away. This is an absurd and naïve idea, of course. Get rid of religion, and there we will be, left with our own rotten human nature. Mankind has no need of religion to be evil, and surely the events of the 20th century proved that.

Regardless, at this point Hitchens either knows the truth of it or he is gone and there is nothing left of him to know anything. Let’s say a prayer for his soul, those of us who believe there is one. If this annoys him then no doubt he’s shocked that there is something of him left to annoy.
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  1. <alt>doxygen's Avatar
    Maybe I missed it in there, but what Hitchens book was that referring to?

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