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Christopher Hitchins is NOT an atheist — he’s a fundamentalist.

May 26, 2010

Is there a more annoying personage on the face of God’s green earth than Christopher Hitchens? His wit and intelligence are justly renowned, and I’ve long admired his energy as a journalist. He’s clever, too: the title of his memoir, Hitch-22, occasioned a deep smile when I first saw it.

“Hitch-22” is, of course, a play on the title of Joesph Heller’s novel, Catch-22., but it tells more than Hitchens intends: Since the publication of his bestselling anti-religion screed, God is Not Great, in 2007, Hitchens has paraded his own personal Catch-22 like the emperor’s new clothes:

How can a man who so ferociously worships himself claim to be an atheist?

I blame Hitchens for the loss of my own unbelief. When God Is Not Great came out, the only thing in the universe I knew for sure was that there is no God. In 2005 I even wrote a little essay defending atheism as a philosophical and moral system, which you can find reprinted at AtheistParents.org.

To my surprise, though, I found myself bridling against the tone and some of the arguments in God is Not Great. Though there was much I agreed with in Hitchens’ book, it was less a nuanced humanist argument than a rhetorical carpet bombing, a flaming expression of a kind of intolerant triumphalism that would not be out of place booming from the lips of an evangelical preacher or a radical Islamic cleric.

If atheism did not help its adherents become more principled and tolerant, I mused, then what good was it? This question led to others, and eventually I stumbled upon A View of the Ocean, a memoir by the late Dutch-American novelist and playwright Jan de Hartog–an atheist describing a spiritual experience. You can find my review here.

In the end, I moved one square on the chess board, from atheist to agnostic. What an ugly word: “agnostic.” But it more accurately describes what I think and believe today — that we humans cannot know. Not me, not you, not Franklin Graham, not Hitchens.

The vulnerability of Hitchens’ views is widely perceived, as indicated by the decidedly mixed reviews of Hitch-22 from Britain: “[S]parkles with funny stories, treasurable quotations, witty apercus and deft descriptions,” writes Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times. “Why then did I find myself reading it with increasing distrust and eventually, I have to say, distaste?”

Less measured but funnier, John Crace spoofs Hitch-22 in his “Digested Read” column at the Guardian. Crace, a gifted literary ventriloquist, makes a living reading books then rewriting brief versions of their essence: “I find I have written nothing of my wives,” Crace’s version of Hitchens writes, “save that they are fortunate to have been married to me, and nothing of my emotional life. That is because I don’t have one. The only feeling I have is of being right, and that has been with me all my life.”

The Guardian also has an excellent, fully rounded profile of Hitchens by Decca Aitkenhead. Titled “I Was Right and They Were Wrong,” it reveals Hitchens as a legendary intellectual who has slipped, in degenerate middle age, into solipsism and simpleness obscured only by his rhetorical skills.

Apart from the ugly self-promotion of his atheism, Hitchens’ other big flaw was his flop from lefty radical to neo-con poster boy after 9-11, and his thunderously self-righteous endorsement of George Bush’s ruinous and unjustified invasion of Iraq. No less an authority than Hitchen’s own wife, “the American writer Carol Blue,” suggested it was a question of manhood, her husband one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been.”

Hitchens tells the Guardian of his “exhilaration” on 9-11, when the terror attacks on New York conveniently simplified the world for him: “Because I thought, now we have a very clearly drawn confrontation between everything I hate and everything I love. There is something exhilarating about that. Because, OK, now I know what I’m doing.”

Hitchens is referring here to the “Islamofascism” he thinks wants to destroy the West. Such seeking after moral simplicity is one of the signal defining characteristics of fundamentalism.

So there you have it. Christopher Hitchens: Fundamentalist.

Oh, and in answer to the question posed in the first paragraph: Not by a long shot. But he’s annoying enough.

Do we have any Hitchens’ acolytes or disciples who would care to rise to the prophet’s defense?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen permalink
    May 26, 2010 2:07 pm

    (Another) great post, Chauncey. I have such lingering affection for Hitchens in his former incarnation that I can’t ever quite bring myself to stop hoping this absolutism is just some crazy phase, that soon he’ll realize with a jolt he’s become everything he used to rail against. I still listen almost every time I see that he’s speaking, but now it’s more out of bemused curiosity over what he’ll say next than genuine interest.

    It’s true — agnostic *is* an ugly word. A messy one. I guess Hitchens will break my heart a little and cling to his neat constructions to the bitter end; as that other manly man Hemingway said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:35 pm

      Funny you should mention Hemingway, because I can’t help wondering how much Hitchens’ well-publicized taste for drink, a taste shared with Hemingway, may play in his transformation. I recall reading him with something akin to awe back in the ’80s, when he was a columnist for The Nation. And I still take pleasure in the work he occasionally does for Newsweek. A first-rate mind, and a real talent for writing and reporting. Pickled? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just the cumulative influence of that massive self-regard. Thanks for the kind words, Eileen.

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 26, 2010 2:09 pm

    Fred and Shirley Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church beat Hitchens on the annoying scale any day.

    I remember seeing Hitchen’s interview on Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit”, where he wouldn’t or couldn’t put his drink down. Yeah, he’s a superman alright. Not.

    Atheists love to claim they do good for good’s sake, but really, most do good so they can brag about it.

    I do respect Carol Blue more after reading her take on her husband’s reaction to September 11th. Imagine being a fly on the wall for the discussion that resulted.

    Anselms argument makes more sense to me than Hitchen’s.

    But like you Chauncey, I just don’t know.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:40 pm

      Tipping my annoyance scale this week: Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindeloff.

      I still have a great deal of respect for atheism, which really is a moral belief system, and not just an excuse for selfish behavior (regardless of what Dostoevsky says). I also respect anyone’s search for meaning in this sad, dark world.

      I also think there’s much honor in saying that we don’t know, can’t know, and whatever solace, spiritual or otherwise, that we can find is okay.

      Yes, I, too, flashed on the conversation that must have ensued in the Blue/Hitchens household.

  3. May 26, 2010 2:09 pm

    Thanks Chauncey. So have you watched this little doc about the two fundamentalists, Hitchens and Douglas Wilson? Do give it a look. Maybe you’ll take that one more move on the chessboard and maybe become infinitely relieved to hear the Almighty pronounce, “Checkmate!”

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/mQV4MIQW3JV61

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:41 pm

      TJ, thaks for the link. I’ll give it a look the first chance I get. Right now, I’m comfortable with my new position on the chess board, but I’m not closed to whatever might come next.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 26, 2010 2:11 pm

    No defense of him here. He seems to fail to see the gray area between the black and white, as so many other people, whether Atheist, Christian, Islamic, ect…

    Reminds me of an interview I heard Sunday on NPR with Brenda Peterson, author of “I Want To Be Left Behind” and how she cleverly compared strict environmentalists with “rapurists”–like they both passionately believe the end of the world is coming, ect….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:42 pm

      Well…I believe the end of the world is coming, too, but then I’m just pessimistic by nature, so don’t mind me. I have no patience for those you cite, who have no interest in the gray between the black and the white.

  5. May 26, 2010 2:22 pm

    While there is never any accounting for people’s politics or spiritual beliefs (if any) it is always disheartening to find someone one admires taking the easy way out… You sum this up eloquently, Chauncey, in the Hitchens case when you turn his words against him and conclude: “Such seeking after moral simplicity is one of the signal defining characteristics of fundamentalism.”

    As a wit and contrarian, I once held him in such high esteem as to think him heir of Wilde.
    But he seems to have been losing that light touch and sophistication over the years. ‘When anyone agrees with me, I suspect I must be wrong’ Wilde once quipped. In his efforts to always up the ante and take the opposing view, Hitchens seems to have lost the plot and become a parody of himself. Self-indulgent as he now is, his ‘cleverness’ and shock tactics grow tiresome…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:46 pm

      Yes, Yahia, but we can always honor what he once was, and — who knows? –may be again. For now, however, he has become both a self-caricature and all that he hated and despised in the past. He’s such a contrarian that he’s now saying he dislikes being called a contrarian, even though one of his books is title “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” This is simply perverse, and not in an interesting way.

      • May 27, 2010 12:12 pm

        True. There is the (slim) chance he might return… but for now Hitchens seems to me a kind of cautionary tale: on the limitations of the mind, and the perils of self-infatuation (aka pompous ass)

  6. Bobbi permalink
    May 26, 2010 7:21 pm

    No defense here, either.

    I’ve come to it from the other direction, but, like you, I seem to have ended up living in the Land of Agnosticism.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2010 11:47 pm

      It’s a good place to be, whether it turns out a way station or a destination.

  7. John Karwacki permalink
    May 27, 2010 7:42 am

    I do not wish to defend the man. I have seen him on Charlie Rose and other shows where he seems intent on being smarter than the rest of the players. He does seem to amuse himself. Fundamentalism is based on fear, no matter the deity. I consider myself an ass-nostic. I guess what really bothers me about Hitchens is that I see a bit of my own ego in his self-satisfied and bloated self importance. Ouch. Relieve me of the bondage of self. Thanks Chauncey for yet another thought provoking blog.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 27, 2010 10:53 am

      Hitchens is ego-bloated, indeed, not to mention just plain bloated. “Ass-nostic!” You’ve outdone yourself, Mr. K.

      Fundamentalism is based on fear? True enough, but that’s not its sole foundation. An urgent desire for simple answers to complex, even imponderable questions is part of it, too.

  8. rachel permalink
    May 27, 2010 10:33 am

    Thanks Chauncey Mabe. I agree, agnostic is an ugly word, and yet that’s where I find myself as well. And I’m okay with that. Who knows?

    I also read “A View of the Ocean” and you know what an impact that had on me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 27, 2010 10:54 am

      I heartily recommend “A View of the Ocean” to all and sundry.

  9. Kris Montee permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:08 am

    I’ve never been able to put my finger on why Hitchens annoys me so much but you nailed it: He’s crossed the line from contrarian to fundamentalist “Let’s invade Iran!” wacko.

    Lord save me from anyone who is sure he is right and wants to change everyone else’s mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 27, 2010 9:05 pm

      Thanks, Kris. I think it’s a useful rule of thumb: Anyone sure he’s right is almost certainly wrong.

  10. Sean permalink
    May 27, 2010 3:54 pm

    Chauncey, great post and great diagnosis. I feel like Hitchens is our generation’s man of letters, and like you and other commenters I’d followed him and his writings for a long span and then put him aside. For me it was after 9/11 when he sided with the PNAC gang.

    About 20 years ago The Washington Times (where I worked at the time) profiled Hitchens, and in the article he called himself “a liberal with conservative instincts,” a quote I never forgot. And before that he wrote in opposition to abortion when he was a columnist for the Nation. So he was Ok with arguing in-house. But yeah at some point the contrary streak became the whole entity, and the narci-fundamental-ism that you describe became his No. 1 trait.

    p.s. I am going to name my first child “Decca Aitkenhead”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 27, 2010 9:06 pm

      Thanks for the insight, Sean. And I second your child-naming plan. I think that’s brilliant in the British sense of the word.

  11. Sean permalink
    June 2, 2010 10:59 am

    Yikes! NYT falls in love all over again.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/books/02book.html

  12. Chris permalink
    August 29, 2010 9:54 pm

    Obviously, you wrote this post a while ago and are probably well over it. Anyway I think you don’t quite do Hitchens justice. Yes, on the one hand he does support George Bushes War on Iraq

  13. Chris S permalink
    August 29, 2010 10:20 pm

    Obviously, you wrote this post a while ago and are probably well over it. Anyway I feel like pointing out I don’t think you do Hitchens justice especially in giving him the label fundamentalist. Yes, on the one hand he does support George Bush’s War in Iraq but he has also attempted to sue George Bush’s government for wire tapping and he criticised them on other matters like Bush supporting Intelligent Design. Even if he’s mistaken about the Iraq War I don’t think that automatically makes him a ne0-con or a fundamentalist, he gives different reasons for going to Iraq than Bush, more about the brutality inflicted by Saddam and his cronies.

    On his rhetoric for religion, I haven’t read God is Not Great but I’ve seen quite a few of his debates. Even if he is firey and overly antagonistic that doesn’t make him a fundamentalist. After debates with Dinesh D’Souza, he often gets drinks with Dinesh and his wife and after one debate I read he went for dinner with Rabbi Shlumley. This behaviour to me anyway, seems the opposite of fundamentalism or intolerance. An atheist and theist passionately disagree with each other give harsh arguments to each other but then afterwards are at least amicable enough to have dinner or share a drink, this seems closer to the ideal of tolerance.

    Also a non-important side note, if memory serves me, Hitchens never wanted his book to be titled Letters to a Young Contrarian but his publisher insisted.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 19, 2010 10:31 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, but let me say that Hitchens does not need me to do him jusice, he handles that department just fine all by himself. Somewhere on this site, however, is a blog expressing my admiration for Hichens and the way he’s conducting himself regarding his cancer diagnosis. As for fundamentalism, I still believe Hitchens is by definition an intolerant fundamentalist atheist. The fact he may like and have drinks or dinner with his rhetorical opponents is entirely beside the point. I’m attacking his written and in some cases spoken comments, not his private or social life. Political and philosophical enemies often become friends behind the scenes, perhaps most bizarrely, the friendship that developed between Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell…

  14. Chris S permalink
    August 29, 2010 10:22 pm

    Sorry I made a little typing mistake he didn’t “sue” the government he made a lawsuit with some other organizations against Bush’s government.

  15. Louise permalink
    September 19, 2010 2:31 am

    An interesting article; I hadn’t encountered Hitchens’s latest book (not into reading him, or Dawkins, or any of that mob). I like the satirical line from John Crace about Hitchens having no emotional life. It reminds me of how Hitchens wouldn’t acknowledge, maybe couldn’t actually grasp, that waterboarding is torture until he actually experienced it. That said altogether too much about him, for me.

  16. Fred permalink
    October 10, 2010 4:09 pm

    To me he seems a zealous champion of the oppressed. To him, if religion is responsible for the death and oppression of millions (or tens, for that matter), it must go. Quite simple really. I think you should go away and read a little John Dryden. Even god himself, when confronted by the daft and/or sadistic reasoning of his so-called followers, would probably reply “you’re bent!”

  17. Joel Gray permalink
    January 20, 2011 3:09 am

    Chauncey, it seems to me that all you are doing is making an ad hominem attack against Hitch. I don’t see a critique of his arguments, just comments on the tone of his argument and his apparent self-aggrandizing. That is exceptionally weak and petty of you, and the rest of the commentators who jumped on the bandwagon.

    A fundamentalist is someone who strictly adheres to a doctrine or dogma. Atheism has no doctrine or dogma. It is simply the rejection of the claim that there is a god. That’s it.

    I also don’t believe that Hitch is a fundamentalist anti-Islamofascist. What you’ve done is quoted one statement and branded him on this alone without looking at the reasons and evidence behind his position. It’s like reading the back of a book and using this to judge the merits of the arguments in the book.

    Do you have any specific counter-arguments to any of Hitch’s positions?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2011 8:01 pm

      I’m not sure I agree that atheism has no dogma. The nonexistence of God seems like a dogma to me — nowhere is it written that a dogma must be complicated. Besides, I’m not kidding when I say that Hitchens’ manifest self-worship disqualifies him as an atheist. And finally, I’m certainly not indulging in an ad hominem attack, and if I’ve criticized him primarily for self-aggrandizement and tone — well, why should these things be apart from consideration? And I could say of you what you say of me: Engage what I’ve written, not what I have not. Defend Hitchens’ tone, show how he was not self-aggrandizing.

      Oh, and you made up that definition of fundamentalism, right? Because Dictionary.com has it as “strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles,” while Merriam-Webster says: “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” Along with Dawkins and Harris, Hitchens whipped up atheism into a movement, however feeble, and the non-existence of God certainly qualifies as a basic idea or principle.

      And, by the way, atheism is a belief system. The nonexistence of God can be proven no more than can the existence of God.

  18. Bill permalink
    January 22, 2016 3:17 am

    For me, problem with the New Atheism is that Mr. Hitchins and the others didn’t or don’t understand classical theism. Dawkins seems to believe that God is a part of the universe when He’s the cause that sustains the universe and each object in it. If Dr. Dawkins understood classical theism, the kind of theism St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and even William of Occham believed, he would have known that classical theists think that God is simple, that He has no parts. In St. Thomas’s first cause argument for God’s existence, “first” means “most fundamental.” It does not mean the cause that comes before the second one. The first, most fundamental cause is the one that gives every other cause its existence and causal abilities. The gaps in the fossil record, say, depend on God partly because He sustains the processes that cause them.

    Atheists who tell you that classical theists are atheists about every other god, Zeus, Zoroastor, Thor, and so forth, are making what pnilosophers call a “category mistake.” They’re “. . . assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” See the Oxford American Dictionary. They talk as though those lowercase-g gods are divine in the same way that God is divine. But if God exists, they’re not divine in the strict classical theist’s sense of the word. In fact, if they exist, they depend on Him for their existence.

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