The poverty of a life lived under an illusion

Christopher Hitchens

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.

It Does What it Says on the Label…but Read the Label.

Tom Krattenmaker in his column in USA Today (Monday, April 2) makes some interesting points but spoils it all with a superficial lumping together of all sorts of bedfellows under the catchall of fundamentalism. Why can’t otherwise sensible people begin to see how useless and destructive a label this has become through its excessive use?

“The polar ends of the religious spectrum — atheists on one hand, fundamentalists on the other — often eclipse the believers in the middle. Yet the faithful middle provides a compassionate and constructive form of faith that has much to offer our fractured world,” he writes.

“These are not the brightest times for religious moderates. Mainstream Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics and the like, they’re being upstaged by the more aggressive actors at the polar ends of the spectrum. From Christian conservatives flies rhetoric that pays little heed to the inclusiveness, reasonable tones and subtlety of the ecumenical middle. And from anti-religion author Sam Harris and like-minded atheists comes the damning suggestion that moderates enable violent fundamentalism and that moderation, as Harris puts it, “is the result of not taking Scripture all that seriously.” 

He goes on then to say that “No doubt, the high-profile atheists have a legitimate point when they detail the destructive excesses of fundamentalism. Whether it’s the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei and its practice of self-mortification, evangelical Christians who invoke martial language in their call to “reclaim America for Christ,” or fundamentalist Muslims who legitimize violence in the name of Allah, a tide of harsh, divisive faith seems to be rising around the world.”

This is, frankly, ridiculous. I have been a member of Opus Dei for over 40 years and I know it only as a thoroughly orthodox, mainstream and very moderate in all its exhortation and teaching. Krattenmaker mentions self-mortification, suggesting that this is a mark of extremism. Let us deal with that first. Christian practice obliges all followers of Christ to die to themselves in some way. That is what we mean by mortification (and it has to be “self-mortification” because deliberate mortification of others is in fact sinful). This is all on the basis of Christ’s own words. To mention just one instance, he told us quite clearly that unless a seed dies in the ground it cannot have life. Then there is the exhortation to take up the cross, and many more. Some members of Opus Dei – and other Catholics as well – choose to adopt one or two traditional practices which are relatively uncommon but are no more harmful to the body than the practice of moderate fasting which is the more common practice of Christians.  

Detractors of Opus Dei – Dan Brown at the top of the heap – have painted some very lurid pictures of mortification as something extremist. The Christian apostolic zeal and concern for evangelization of members of Opus Dei is similarly portrayed. Read all of the writings of its founder- in context – and look at the work it does throughout the world and I challenge you to find anything that is not 100 percent consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Taking things out of context is the main source of difficulty here. Take some of the words of Christ himself out of their context, without the balance provided by all of his teaching, and you also be likely to judge them as extreme – like the bit about cutting off your hand if it causes scandal. 

Another source of difficulty is the denial by the some of personal freedom of expression to individual members of Opus Dei. The members of Opus Dei do not speak with one voice. When I write now as a response to Tom Krattenmaker  I do so personally. If some find me somewhat extremist then it is to me that the charge should be addressed. It is not fair to brand all of Opus Dei and paint it in the colours of my personal views.

Kratenmaker remarks that “Because of their good manners, the moderates’ voice has been relatively quiet, and their message has had a harder time breaking through. Unity? Inter-religious understanding? Peace? In a time of over-heated rhetoric from the extreme-opposite camps, it’s almost as though these are things for wimps.” The first sign of good manners in most conversations is the readiness to listen, and listen as carefully as you can. I would like to say that Tom seemed to be listening carefully but sadly I cannot.

– Michael Kirke