Of One Mind: Christopher Hitchens and Jesus Christ

In his book “With”, Skye Jethani pushes readers to re-imagine the way they relate to God. Hanging his presentation on five prepositions, Jethani observes humanity’s strong inclinations toward four poor paths for God-connection:

1) Life Under God

2) Life Over God

3) Life From God

4) Life For God

Both older brothers and younger brothers, in the language of Luke 15, are represented here. The first and last approaches reveal the elder’s pursuit of righteousness, while the middle pair speak to the younger’s path of rebellion. As the parable teaches, there is more than one way to get lost. As C.S. Lewis said: “One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.” Or as Jethani argues: There are at least four wide paths to God that will not deliver you to that destination. But there remains one narrow path, a leads-to-life lane summarized in these three words: “Life With God”.

There are numerous reasons why I freely recommend this book; however, this post will focus on only one attention-grabbing section:

Voices from within the New Atheism movement, most notably Christopher Hitchens (pictured at left), Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, have leveled numerous criticisms at religion as an strongly negative force in our world. Many of these arguments are based on sentiments of frustration common even to God-lovers. Often, cases are stated forcefully with intellectual sharpness. It is not uncommon for people of faith to feel unsettled by such strong negativity, despite an inner sense that says something like, “I don’t have a satisfying response at this moment, but something in me says that this attack is not entirely accurate.”

Jethani shed light on such moments through the following section:

“Events like 9/11, and the holy finger-pointing that followed, give ammunition to critics of religion like avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens. The Vanity Fair columnist and author of the best-selling book ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’ makes a compelling case that religion adds to the fear in our world rather than reduces it. But an examination of Hitchens’ critique of religion shows that he is primarily reacting to the Life Under God posture held by many who claim religious labels.

In a debate on the merits of religion with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (a committed Roman Catholic), Hitchens asked, ‘Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, to appeal to our fear and to our guilt? Is it good for the world?’

Blair responded by noting how religion also motivates many people toward good and charitable actions. He gave the Northern Ireland peace accords as an example. Hitchens pounced on the statement;

‘It’s very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting to bridge the religious divide in Northern Ireland, where does the religious divide come from? Four-hundred years and more in my own country of birth of people killing each other’s children depending on what kind of Christian they were.’

Hitchens went on to blame religion for blocking peace in the Middle East, for subjugating women in many societies, and for fueling the 1994 genocide in Rwanda–a country where 90% of the population claims to be Christian.

After the debate between Hitchens and Blair, the audience voted; 68% said that religion is a more destructive than benign force in the world.”

One part of me sighs at this point. Another part chimes in, “Yeah, but that isn’t really fair.” However, despite this inner conviction that some key information is being overlooked, I feel unable to respond. What is Hitchens missing?

Jethani clarified it for me: Hitchens’ attack isn’t actually zoomed in on genuine Christianity, as he might think. Rather, his cross-hairs rest on the first mistaken approach listed above: Life Under God. On this front, Jethani concedes:

“It is difficult to squabble with Christopher Hitchens’ evidence that traditional religion fuels violence, bigotry, and oppression, and therefore adds to the fear and suffering in our world. If Life Under God was intended to reduce our fears and provide greater control over our unpredictable world, it has proven to be an utter failure. Any way of relating to God predicated on fear and fighting for control cannot deliver us from what plagues humanity–namely, fear and fighting for control.”

The real twist?

“It may surprise some people, but at times Christopher Hitchens sounds a great deal like Jesus. Like Hitchens, Jesus frequently spoke out against the hypocrisy and harm inflicted by the religious system of his day.”

Yes, you read that rightly.

In at least this regard, Christopher Hitchens and Jesus Christ are of one mind. That said, it intrigues that one laid himself down, confident that the sacrifice would lead others into life, while the other spent himself in critique aimed at discrediting the former. The irony: Jesus is abundantly aware of the pathetic, even downright destructive, approaches that people take to God. He knows these things better than any, and it drove him to blaze a purified path to the Father. As much as Hitchens could observe, he felt compelled to label any path associated with a divine name as damned by default.

Jesus, on the other hand, lay himself down to redeem the wretched and to free the fools–both those shackled by ritualistic righteousness and reckless rebellion.

Along the way, you can be certain that he loves Christopher Hitchens deeply. And about some matters, he even speaks an “amen”.

How Reform Happens

In my July 5 post, I linked to an article discussing another article.  At the head of the train was a discussion on “the religion of atheism”.  Zac Alstin, who wrote the original piece, ended it with this bit:

In the end we can either reform religion or replace it; there is no third option. The anti-religious atheist is – unwittingly – the inspired prophet of a new religious movement. Whatever ideas he plants in the fertile soil of the human mind, we can rest assured that something religious will eventually grow. The answer to all the religious evils on the tip of an atheist’s tongue is perseverance in religious goods.

Bad religion, like bad science, bad ethics, bad politics and bad arguments must be challenged for being bad, not for being at all.

My friend Jeremy, especially appreciating the bolded portion, left this comment:

i like the last sentence, but how do you go about challenging or getting rid of “the bads”?

Great question, Jer!

So my friends, I pose it to you.  With so many “bads” in our world in need of critique, how does one go about challenging them?  What is fair?  What is effective?  What is possible?

The Religion of Atheism

Scot McKnight has a wonderfully sharp entry based on a piece by Zac Alstin.  Regardless of whether you’ve encountered “the new atheism” in reading or conversation or whether or not you possess your own foundational questions of faith, this read helpfully frames the discussion.