Hitchens' flat world


At a certain point in reading God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens’ broadside against religion as a false, immoral, man-made construction, I half-expected Hitchens to write that if God were real and omnipotent, and consequently Hitchens so wrong, then God should have arranged things so as to prevent him from writing his book.

But the book exists! So God couldn’t stop it. And why couldn’t he stop it? The simplest answer is that he does not exist!

God is not Great — lavishly excerpted in the National Post these last four days (the final instalment appearing on the opposite page) — has lots of arguments like that. Isn’t it silly for religious believers to bring themselves before God in certain places when God could see them wherever they are? And why do we need to tell an omniscient God what we need? And what if different believers pray for mutually contradictory things? And didn’t you know about inconsistencies in sacred texts? And — this example must be included because Hitchens is mightily annoyed that religion seeks to restrain the sexual appetite — why would God create human beings with their hands close to their genitals if he didn’t intend for them vigorous onanistic exertions, of which all religions take a dim view? You see, such puzzles can only be solved by realizing that the whole putrid mess is pure fabrication by fraudsters playing upon mankind’s “infantile” need for consolations in a harsh world.

Hitchens writes as though he has read deeply in the history of religious thought, but if so he managed to do it without engaging what he has found there. He breezily dismisses the long examination of the great questions of divine power and human freedom, divine foreknowledge and human uncertainty, divine inspiration and human agency, human nature and the natural law, as insuperable problems that must either be ignored or shielded from the penetrating reason of clever people like Christopher Hitchens.

I’m sorry, was that an ad hominem attack? Hard to resist after reading what is, essentially, a book-length example of same. Hitchens’ approach is to romp through history, using his cutting literary style to spoof and mock all the absurdities he finds in the world of religion. If Hitchens met a local vicar with bad breath, religion is to blame for halitosis. It’s a fun game, but not really an argument. Hitchens claims that “religion poisons everything” — including the aftermath of his beloved Iraq War, which was going swimmingly until the mullahs screwed it up — as though without religion history would be free of people doing beastly things.

Despite Hitchens entertaining style, his book quickly becomes tedious. If you are the sort of person who thinks it very clever to respond to, say, an argument defending the role of religious believers in a pluralistic society by shouting, “What about the Crusades?”, you will be nodding along with Hitchens in emphatic agreement. If you find such ad historiam arguments tedious, you will be simply nodding off.

Page after page, Hitchens piles one outrage upon another. So convinced is he of the rightness of his conclusion — “religion poisons everything” — that he does not blanch from the most breathtaking rearrangements of the facts and terms of debate. With an apparently straight face he excuses the evils of secular regimes, by blaming the Catholic Church for Nazism and classifying North Korea’s communist regime as a religious cult. If anti-clerical fascists and atheistic autocrats fall into the camp of religion, then the reader can only wonder why Hitchens doesn’t blame the priests for inclement weather.

Hitchens’ approach is to romp through history, using his cutting literary style to spoof and mock all the absurdities he finds in the world of religion. If Hitchens met a local vicar with bad breath, religion is to blame for halitosis.

What then does Hitchens propose as the antidote to the poison of religion? He opts for scientific materialism, the banality of which he tries to hide behind such — dare we say it? — “pious” invocations about the sense of wonder induced by photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope. It’s like saying that the ultimate questions of life and death that religion grapples with can be set aside by watching the sunset.

Hitchens inhabits a flat world, devoid of the spirit even broadly understood, and thinks that he can see farther, not realizing that he has razed all the interesting features of the landscape. It is a literally parenthetical comment that exposes the barrenness of Hitchens worldview: “Charles Darwin was born in 1809, on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, and there is no doubt as to which of them has proved to be the greater ‘emancipator.’”

Only in world stripped of all that is distinctively human would Darwin’s theories about the evolution of finch beaks provide greater emancipation for the human spirit than Lincoln’s sublime words about human dignity, sacrifice and the better angels of our nature. On balance, Lincoln on our destiny is a better bet for a humane world than Darwin on our origins.

“Religion has run out of justifications,” Hitchens concludes. “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” Hitchens is not unlike the zealots he assails, which explains how an obviously intelligent man could write something so embarrassingly stupid.

Here are some unimportant questions for which a microscope is rather unhelpful in answering: Why are we here? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the purpose of human existence? Hitchens is so fascinated with what he can see in the skies or in the laboratory that he is blind to the world in which men actually live. Perhaps he thinks that without religion there would be more peace, wisdom and beauty in a world dominated by politics, science, entertainment and industry. There is no evidence for that claim whatsoever, and good reason to believe that such a flat world would be more brutal to live in.

In the end, I suspect that the principal objection Hitchens has is to the Christian doctrine of original sin, namely that human wickedness, freely chosen, has made our world one in which beastly things are done to us and by us, and that this world needs a redeemer. On the contrary, the world glimpsed through the telescope and microscope is one where there is no room for freedom — asteroids and atoms do not make choices — and therefore no room for sin or sanctity, and no need of a redeemer. Indeed, there is no room even for man, the measure of which cannot be reduced to scientific instruments.

God has no place in the world Hitchens wants, but nobody else has ever lived there either.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Hitchens’ flat world." National Post, (Canada) May 12, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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