Atheist Hitchens v. Atheist Dawkins

This article was originally written before the death of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens died on Thursday, December 15, losing his battle with esophageal cancer. It is nothing short of ironic that an individual known for his use of words — both inflammatory and beautiful — should succumb to a disease of the throat. He was 62.

As guest editor of the Christmas edition of the New Statesman, Britain’s admittedly socialistic propaganda magazine, Professor Richard Dawkins reveals his true agenda regarding the Christian faith: he wants to destroy it. This will come as little surprise to anyone who has read more than a page or two of his writings, but the real shocker here is that his interviewee in the feature spread of the magazine — none other than arch anti-theist Christopher Hitchens — does not share Dawkins’ mission.

This is, in fact, old news to anyone who has had the opportunity to view the compelling documentary, Collision (you can order it here), featuring Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson on a whirlwind debate tour through New York City and Washington DC. For a quick view of the last two minutes of this film — where Hitchens makes the startling admission that even if given the chance he would not eradicate religion from the world — click here. Then, as now, Dawkins cannot fathom why Hitchens would say such a thing. In truth, Hitchens himself is not entirely sure why he would not, but he has answered consistently about it nevertheless.

One author puts his finger on the issue: Hitchens is thoroughly anti-totalitarian in his thought. Unlike Dawkins, Hitchens does not see “destroying” religion as a motivation for warring against religion. Hitchens’ war with Christianity, and all organized religion for that matter, is not one of hatred of a particular viewpoint (as Dawkins’ war apparently is), it is one of battling against intellectual tyranny. For Hitchens, a point of view that is held for valid intellectual reasons is a noble one, while a point of view held out of fear or mere tradition is not.

This is why Dawkins cannot fathom that Hitchens would not take the opportunity to eradicate religion once and for all: because Dawkins is every bit the totalitarian which he accuses the religious of being. He despises how religion can corrupt and influence people, and he wouldn’t think twice about bringing an authoritarian end to its reign of “corruption.” In this sense, Dawkins becomes a priest of a different sort: a high priest of anti-religious thought imposed and taught by a cadre of lab-coated bishops and deacons steeped in the scientific method and secular humanism. Dawkins’ replacement for religion is every bit as religious as that which he seeks to destroy. He simply wants to substitute his own brand of fundamentalism for another.

Hitchens, while certainly not without his own predispositions to intellectual tyranny in other areas (creationism being one of them), recognizes that atheists can be just as dogmatic as religionists. He balks at replacing one flavor of dogma with another and genuinely seems to understand that difference of opinion is a good thing, not something to be destroyed.

Hitchens’ characteristically strident tone of speaking and writing to the contrary, he fully understands that one needs to know not only what he believes, but also what he doesn’t believe.

This is precisely the issue in modern American politics. Conservatives are too busy bashing liberals to realize that the two are often saying the same thing, albeit with a different solution in mind (almost always some form of big government). The divide between Hitchens and Dawkins is instructive to us. While both recognized that ideologies are powerful, both had divergent opinions of where the real battle was. Dawkins, the fundamentalist, believed that destruction and eradication of the opposition was the goal, while Hitchens understood that the divergence helped to better define the issue. For Dawkins, the argument was a means to an end; for Hitchens, the argument was the end.

Far too many conservatives and liberals are like Dawkins, begrudging the daily grind of argumentation and heated discussion, looking forward to the day when their view will be vindicated. This is not only a naïve view of politics; it is a naïve view of life. Life is not an equation that we plug our variables into and get a nice clean answer; life is much more complicated than this. While we can certainly agree that smaller government, lower taxes, and more free-market solutions are a step in the right direction (contrary to usual liberal solutions), we would be remiss in thinking that actually getting these things instituted will magically make the political divide disappear. The goal is not to accomplish certain things (although this is certainly part of it), the real goal is education; that is, not just voting liberals out of office, but teaching individuals to think for themselves.

Hitchens was nothing if not educated, yet he never stopped educating himself and others. He also never stopped arguing and wrestling for understanding. Liberals and conservatives alike must learn this lesson. We must stop thinking of our political opposition the way Dawkins thinks about Christianity. Liberalism is not something to be destroyed, it is something to be exposed and shown — again and again and again — to be false and antithetical to reality. However, as Hitchens seems to understand, eradicating the belief altogether does not further the cause of the unbeliever. Just as darkness must exist for light to have any meaning, conservatism means nothing without liberalism.

This does not mean that liberalism must remain around just to keep conservatism alive, but it does mean that the battle goes much deeper than being one of “isms.” The Bible speaks of two groups of people: narrow-path people and broad-path people, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, covenant keepers and covenant breakers. Both sides have their fundamentalists: those who believe that victory comes through adherence to the system, rather than through the first principles upon which “the system” is built. Hitchens well understands that arguments stem from unproven — and unprovable — assumptions. Conservatives would do well to seek to understand this as well, rather than following the slash and burn techniques of the Richard Dawkins of the world.