Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christopher Hitchens

After reading Dawkins, I was eager to scan a few more books from popular new atheist literature.  I had borrowed from the library a copy of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, and God is Not Great.  My joy at reading these inspiring works is mixed with the sad realization that they aren't being more widely read and discussed.  History may well record these authors as positioned near the beginning of a new enlightenment, emerging as it does from unprecedented levels of ignorance in contemporary society.  I only read Hitchens' introduction to The Portable Atheist and a few of the authors included in this compilation, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose face is piercingly beautiful and whose words gave me goose bumps).  In God is Not Great I read just five chapters (I really should read the rest of the book sometime).  Now, whereas Dawkins shines forth in his writing through his intimate knowledge of science, Hitchens is clearly a writer par excellence capable of painting images on the canvas of the mind.  His face as seen in photographs often appears to carry a dour expression, but like Dawkins, his writing reveals a much more charitable personality than you'd otherwise expect. 

Hitchens explains that the term atheist is very useful, if only because we are emerging from a social past in which theism has been used to control all aspects of life.  (The Portable Atheist, xx)  Perhaps no author makes the actual extent to which this control went more clear than Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  His descriptions of the atrocities are worse than anything I can imagine.  The positive view of atheism, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is well explained by Hichens:  “...atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it.”  (PA, xvi)

Delving into the nuances of the atheist stance, Hitchens writes:  “And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers.  Our belief is not a belief.  Our principles are not a faith.  We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”  (GNG, p.5)

I think one underlying fear held by religious people (correct me if I am wrong religious people out there!) is that all atheists would be happy to eliminate religion and relegate it to the dustbin of history.  But near the beginning of each of Hitchens' books that I read, he is careful to present his views on this:  “...religion is so much a part of our human or animal nature that it is actually ineradicable.  This, for what it may be worth, is my own view.” (PA, xxiii)  “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still evolving creatures, ineradicable.  It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.  For this reason I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could.” (GNG, 12)  Indeed, why prohibit what comes naturally?  Leaving religion should be an informed personal decision, just as entering it should be.  Hitchens' also addresses a concern much more relevant to me, and probably many religious folk as well, that without belief life loses its “awareness of the numinous or the transcendent”.  But by squarely looking at the facts of existence- that we are merely animals with organs that will fail all too early within our short lifespans- I take comfort.  The facts allow me a rational basis for effective action.  False notions will do nothing for me.  “There can be no serious ethical position based on denial or a refusal to look the facts squarely in the face.”  (PA, xxii)  Two excellent books by Hitchens, highly recommended (if only for the content which I reviewed).

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