Atheism is in decline, according to George Weigel. Really? Well, he reported last month from the Ethics and Public Policy Centre at which he is a Senior Fellow, that their global number is now 137 million , showing a steady drop over the past decade. His figures came from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and seemed fairly reliable. However, I still found myself a little sceptical until I read and reflected on an interview in the Daily Telegraph last week. This was both poignant and terrifying. Mick Brown, one of the Telegraph’s veteran interviewers had gone to Washington to meet the one of the arch-priests of the New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens.
As most people who know of Hitchens are already sadly aware, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hitchens put it rather starkly to Brown, telling him that the cancer is now at stage four. ‘And the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.’ He has been told that of 1,000 men of his age and in his condition, half could expect to be dead within a year.
What was poignant about all this is fairly obvious: a man in love with life, and man surrounded by admiring friends who enjoy his wit, intelligence and superb powers of expression, now considers that he has made his last journey – to a place he calls “Tumourville”.
What was terrifying was less obvious and lurked in the shadows at the back of the mind for days until gradually it overwhelmed the poignancy with the full force of Mr. Kurtz’s dying words in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror”. This is surely one of the reasons for the decline in atheism. There is no suggestion here that Christopher Hitchens has on his conscience the catalogue of crimes against humanity which Mr. Kurtz – or Col. Kurtz, if you are working to the text provided by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now – had. What exactly it was that Kurtz saw in those dying moments which drove those terrible words from his heart and soul is open to interpretation, but it is hard not to have that same sense of horror at the prospect of someone departing on his final journey while thinking that he is coming to a full stop – while in fact he is not.
The poverty of a life lived under the illusion induced by a fallacy of reason – that just because you cannot prove something according to the rules of what we call science, then it is not true – is a dreadful condition. The bleakness of that life makes the prospect of atheism for the vast majority of ordinary mortals too much to bear. T.S. Eliot reminded us that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. The reality he was referring to was, we know, a limited reality. Eliot knew the full picture and knew that this was where the heart of peace was. But it is this limited reality which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. are proposing to us as the be-all and the end-all of our existence. Humankind is clearly not buying it.
Brown tells us that Hitchens has faced his illness with great courage. He has, and it is admirable. But as far as death is concerned courage does not enter into it. There is nothing for him to be afraid of beyond a full stop. But mankind from time immemorial, and by the looks of it from the statistics Weigel puts before us, for all time to come, as long as common sense prevails, knows in his heart of hearts that there is no full stop. How, one wonders, does the evidence of history and nature not make the atheists ponder their judgements on all this? Does every natural phenomenon we find in the world around us, and in every species of being in that world, not point to some purpose related to the destiny of that being? How then could this one universal phenomenon of belief in a first mover and an afterlife – which all of human history records in one form or another, and modern man still exhibits in overwhelming numbers, – be so meaningless? It makes no sense.
Brown tells us that talking with Hitchens about this, “you sense not only an anger with the institutions, teaching and practices of religion, but also an exasperation and bemusement with the very fact of belief. Put simply, he just doesn’t get it.”
“’With religion, try as I may, I can’t think myself into the viewpoint of the faithful. I can’t think what it would be like to believe that somebody had died for my sins, for example. I don’t get it at all.’ So it is that people’s experiences of faith will always be ‘delusions’; the consolations they may derive from it always ‘false’ ones.” But one feels that part of the problem is that what might be a consolation for others would be nothing of the kind to Hitchens. Boredom, he admits is his great enemy.
Brown and he discuss another notable – and late – atheist and his fear of death, the poet Philip Larkin. “‘What Larkin was saying was, you bloody fools; that’s exactly what I’m afraid of – annihilation.’ He pauses. ‘It is a disagreeable thought.’
“’However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’ He gives a slight shudder. ‘Anything eternal is probably intolerable.’”
Brown asked him if he thought he had been a good person? ‘No, not particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects, for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for others, I really don’t.’
That is, perhaps, the real crunch. The prospect of eternity in that state of mind or soul is intolerable. And that is where “the horror, the horror” really bites.
While the medical prognosis for Christopher Hitchens is grim, there is one glimmer of hope and one that has no small suggestion of irony in it. Shortly after his diagnosis he was asked if he would be willing to take part in an experiment looking for a cure for cancer through genome sequencing. It is complicated but early this year he got news that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour for which there already exists a drug. Chemotherapy is now underway making use of this information.
The ironic part of this is that one of the doctors taking an active interest in Hitchens’s treatment is Francis Collins, a pioneer of the Human Genome Research Institute. Collins is an evangelical Christian, the author of a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. ‘It is a rather wonderful relationship,’ Hitchens told Brown. ‘I won’t say he doesn’t pray for me, because I think he probably does; but he doesn’t discuss it with me.’ Perhaps all this will prove to be something beyond irony.