A rage against religion
Christopher Hitchens died on December 15 2011, at the age of 62. It was a little over a year since he was diagnosed with cancer.
A journalist by trade, Hitchens was an eloquent and provocative writer. Though a political socialist, he was unconventional in many ways — writing in support of both the Falklands war and the war in Iraq.
Hitchens became better known to most Christians through his predictable support of the rising new atheism. Richard Dawkins, recording the last interview with him shortly before his death, described Hitchens as his hero, a ‘doughty nemesis of popes and faiths’. In 2007 he published the best-selling God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The book was passionate and patchy in its denunciation of religion. Written in a similar style to Dawkins’s The God Delusion, it was full of sound and fury, but signified little. There are no new ideas or insights offered in the book, but a muddy mix of sharp satire and crude ridicule. Hitchens was willing to debate anyone and along the way he engaged with John Lennox, William Lane Craig (a contrast to Richard Dawkins, who ducked the possibility of an encounter with Craig last year) and former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Why so militant?
Why was Hitchens so militant and vocal in his opposition to Christianity? He described himself not as an atheist, but as an ‘antitheist’. He pointed out that an atheist might wish a god did exist, but an antitheist is someone who is glad there is no god and now strives to eradicate all traces of belief in him. That is an interesting clarification. Many people don’t believe in fairies or UFOs but don’t spend time arguing against their existence. What is it about God that generates such energetic opposition?
Hitchens’s brother Peter is a Christian and his memoir, The Rage Against God, is partly a response to God is Not Great. Peter Hitchens draws attention to the way his brother selectively uses examples of bad religion. Such examples are easily found and allow any sloppy journalist to characterise all religion in such terms. Christopher Hitchens argued that organised religion was ‘the main source of hatred in the world’. To some extent, evangelicals can agree. Religion can be a source of intolerance and ignorance. Religion can be a barrier to genuine faith. A Christian is not primarily concerned with making the world more religious but with helping more people come to faith. Down through history and around the globe evangelicals have often suffered at the hands of the religious. The World in Brief section of Evangelicals Now often highlights how Religion is Not Great.
In an ironic twist, Hitchens’s illness was treated by Francis Collins, the evangelical head of the Human Genome Project. After news of his death, he paid tribute: ‘I will miss Christopher. I will miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh out loud. No doubt he now knows the answer to the question of whether there is more to the spirit than just atoms and molecules. I hope he was surprised by the answer. I hope to hear him tell about it someday. He will tell it really well’.
None of us can judge where someone finally chose to stand before God and Christ in their dying moments. A rage against religion does not have to be a rage against God. But, in the end, God is Great and to miss the point of him deserving worship is to miss the point of life itself.
Chris Sinkinsonis pastor of Alderholt Chapel, in the New Forest, and lectures at Moorlands College. His book on apologetics, Confident Christianity, has just been released by IVP.