Monday, December 19, 2011

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: ATHEISM

I was moved by the death of a countryman, Christopher Hitchens, last week. I am not a big fan of swagger, whether physical, moral, or rhetorical--and from where I sat, not knowing him personally, Hitchens had them all and made a very public practice of them. He was, in debate, something of a bully, cocksure, intolerant of the opinions of those who disagreed with him. Some interpret this as laudable strength and conviction, and deplore the lack of it in those who tend more to listen well and include the views of others in their thinking. I see it rather as a cover-up for a deep inner insecurity and doubt. Whichever is true, it grieves me that a man of formidable intelligence--and one who contributed to the national dialogue with verve, insight and humor--should have died at so young an age.


What interests more above everything else is his virulent and outspoken atheism. I, too, am an atheist. I do not believe in any of the gods our species has invented over these past many centuries, not even the One God most of us seem to have arrived at in our present culture--though there is disagreement, obviously, over which One is the True One. Still, I remain uncomfortable with the certainty of disbelievers. Only death itself will bring any clarity about what reality, if any, exists beyond this life; and death is the ultimate problem that all religions seek ultimately to address. There must, we humans long to believe, be more to it than this brief life we're given to lead on earth.


I arrived at something of a breakthrough in my own thinking yesterday, and wrote about it in The Buddha Diaries. Earlier in the day, before our weekly sit in sangha, I had been reading the New York Times piece about Hitchens and his atheism by the Roman Catholic conservative columnist Ross Douthat. "When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-uptopian happy talk," he wrote, "rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin's poem, 'Aubade’--that 'death is no different whined at than withstood.’"


I disagree with both of them. It's not merely a belief in God that justifies "every human hope and endeavor." We can still strive to better ourselves and our common condition with other beings without the expectation of eternal reward. Is that not the essence of “hope” and “endeavor”? And, Larkin notwithstanding, there is an alternative to either whining at death or, in the words of his fellow poet, Dylan Thomas, to opting for the other path: to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As we can choose to learn from the wisdom of the Buddha, if we’re willing to put in the work it takes it’s equally possible to find a place in our heart where we can address death calmly, with equanimity, and to prepare for it as the ultimate experience of life—the next adventure. But this is not belief. It’s practice. I cannot claim to have reached that point in my own life yet, but I’m working at it.


Is it possible, I wonder, that the deep insecurity Hitchens chose to convert into swagger was hidden precisely in the swaggering atheism he chose so loudly to preach?

9 comments:

John Torcello said...

A time old tale, I think. Hitchin's atheism, his so-called 'insecurity' as you call it, might well just be his way of begrudgingly acknowledging that this was an area - no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he studied - of fact that he could not 'know'; and this frustration was enough to cause him to react by lashing out at those who somehow claim to have found peace in some or another form of faith; real or imagined.

robin andrea said...

I am a fellow atheist as well, Peter. It amazes and amuses me that after all this time, we humans are still trying to figure out what happens after death, as if it mattered. The graves and ethers are full of the dust of everyone who came before us. Once in a while they show up in our dreams, an afterlife in the heart of love.

Hitchens's atheism was interesting to me because he was so outspoken. I appreciated it because it was loud and bombastic enough to over-shout the din of inane believers. I liked hearing it.

Paul said...

I prefer Stephen Batchelor's take on it. For him, if I understand correctly, any discussion of God is pointless because the idea of God makes no sense to him.

What's the point in talking about something you don't believe in because it makes no sense to you? What's the point of trying to convince someone else that their beliefs are pointless?

Richard said...

I has some exposure to Hitch's writing, but it never gelled with me as well as the writing of someone like Carl Sagan.

I prefer the Agnostic (or even Ignostic) viewpoints. Agnosticism, because I strongly suspect that any god that might be around would likely be so far beyond us that we don't have a hope of understanding it.

Ignosticism, because we have to articulate a concept of God that makes sense before we can discuss it, in light of what I wrote above, how can we?

Ran Klarin said...

Peter...
I agree with you. Hitchens manner and presentation were so offensive it obliterated the logic of his words.

Anonymous said...

Hitchens was bombastic, opinionated, brilliant, and honest. I was always interested in what he had to say because I never knew what it would be. Most people are utterly predictable. Not Mr. Hitchens. Whatever he was, he was 100%. I deeply respected his intensity and his honesty. And he was a very fine wordsmith. I'm sorry he's gone.

mike reed said...

I just ran across this, so yes, I know I am late to the party. "I see it rather as a cover-up for a deep inner insecurity and doubt." This comment is laughable. I can though, understand how swagger might offend the sensibilities of someone who prostrates themselves to the ancient thinking of a buddha who may or may not have actually existed. The third eye squints in the light of cold, hard truth. Don't mislabel a strong personality and disbelief in your superstitious group-think as insecurity. Ironically, that itself seems quite insecure.

PeterAtLarge said...

I readily confess to my own sense of insecurity. Indeed, I believe that it characterizes the human condition. The dismissiveness of "group-think" as applied to Buddhist thought and, indeed, I assume, to all religious thinking, betrays something of the arrogance that needlessly diminished the humanity that Hitchens undoubtedly possessed.

mike reed said...

Frankly I'm unclear how the dismissiveness of religious thinking shows any arrogance at all. I'm sure you dismiss the belief in Zeus, don't you? Or maybe it's Osiris that you dismiss. Clearly you must dismiss the belief in the tooth fairy? How utterly arrogant of you.
If it makes one arrogant to dismiss fairy tales then I must confess, I am in fact arrogant then. Is this the part where I fix myself by showing my humility and loyalty to a half-truth that lived thousands of years ago? In doing so I hope to be a beautiful butterfly in my next life.