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Why I Loved to Listen to Christopher Hitchens

SPECIAL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

I have, over the years, playfully accused some of my atheist interlocutors of being “secret Herods.” The biblical Herod arrested John the Baptist but nevertheless took pleasure in listening to John preach from his prison cell. So, I’ve suggested, the atheists who come to my website and comment so acerbically and so frequently on my internet videos are, despite themselves, secretly seeking out the things of God. I will confess to having a certain Herod syndrome in reverse in regard to Christopher Hitchens (who died December 15, 2011). Though he was certainly the most outspoken and biting critic of religion in the last 50 years, and though he often infuriated me with this cavalier and insulting dismissals of what I hold most dear, I will admit that I loved to listen to him.

I think I watched every Hitchens debate that I could find on YouTube; I subscribed to Vanity Fair largely because Hitchens was a regular contributor; I read every one of his books—in fact, I’m currently plowing through his paving-stone sized collection of essays called Arguably (Twelve, 2012); and I delighted in watching him thrust and parry with news interviewers from across the political spectrum, who just could never seem to get a handle on him. Part of the attraction was what the ancient Romans called gaudium de stilo (delight in style).

No one wrote quite like Christopher Hitchens. Whether he was describing an uprising on the streets of Athens, or criticizing the formation of young men in the British boarding schools of the 1950s, or defending his support of the Iraq war, or begging people to let go of what he took to be their childish belief in God, Hitchens was unfailingly intelligent, perceptive, funny, sarcastic, and addictively readable. Another part of the appeal was that his personality was always massively present in what he wrote. There was absolutely nothing detached about a Hitchens book, article, or speech. Rather, his aggressive, inquisitive, cock-sure, irritated, delightfully alert self was consistently on display. Also, Hitchens and I liked a lot of the same people and topics: Evelyn Waugh, contemporary politics, religion, and above all, Bob Dylan. But what I appreciated most about Christopher Hitchens was his passion for God. I realize this might require a bit of explanation!

One of the fundamental mistakes that Hitchens and his new atheist colleagues consistently made in regard to religion was their misconstrual of what serious believers mean by the word “God.” Time and again, the new atheists mocked God as a “sky fairy” or an “invisible friend,” and they argued that religious belief was tantamount to accepting the existence of “a flying spaghetti monster,” a wild mythological fantasy for which there is not a shred of evidence. Or they ridiculed religious philosophers for proposing, over and again, a pathetic “god of the gaps,” a supernatural cause fitted awkwardly into a schema of explanation that science would eventually clarify in its own terms. In all of these ways, however, they missed their mark.

For the classical theological tradition, God is not a being in the world, one object, however supreme, among many. The maker of the entire universe cannot be, himself, an item within the universe, and the one who is responsible for the nexus of causal relations in its entirety could never be a missing link in an ordinary scientific schema. Thomas Aquinas makes the decisive point when he says that God is not ens summum (highest being) but rather ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). God is neither a thing in the world, nor the sum total of existing things; he is instead the unconditioned cause of the conditioned universe, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Accordingly, God is not some good thing, but Goodness itself; not some true object but Truth itself; not some beautiful reality, but Beauty itself. And this helps us to see how Christopher Hitchens, despite his protestations, actually loved God.

What you couldn’t miss in Hitchens’s writing and speaking was a passion for justice, a deep desire to defend those who were denied their rights. This comes through from his first book on Cyprus and Greece to his articles in defense of his friend Salman Rushdie to his recent essays and speeches on the Iraq war. Where does this passion come from? What makes sense of it? If there is no God, which is to say, no unconditioned justice, no absolute criterion of good and evil, why precisely would someone burn with righteous indignation at violations of justice? If we are here simply by dumb chance, if all of us will one day die and simply fade away, if the earth will one day be incinerated and the universe spins away without purpose and in utter indifference to human cruelty and human nobility, why would anyone finally bother? Wouldn’t in fact Dostoyevsky be right in saying that if there is no God everything is permitted? My point is that the very passion for setting things right, which burned so brightly in Christopher Hitchens, is a powerful indicator that he was, whether he acknowledged it or not, connected to unconditioned justice. And that connection brought him very close indeed to what serious believers mean by God.

Soon after Hitchens revealed that he had been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, I wrote a piece for the CNN Belief Blog in which I urged my fellow Christians to pray for him. The article, which I considered rather benign, awakened a furious response on the part of Hitchens’s allies. More than 2,000 respondents told me, effectively, to leave Hitchens alone and not impose my “medieval mumbo-jumbo” on their hero. I didn’t abide by their recommendation. I prayed for Hitchens throughout his illness, and I pray for him now—a man religious despite himself.
 
 
Originally appeared at Word on Fire. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Vanity Fair)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

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  • Bert Ghezzi

    Brandon
    A brilliant start up!

  • I agree with you about Hitchens and many other Atheists. On a related note, sometimes my Protestant friends and I discuss the Eucharist. I have recently decided to try this response, and would like your opinion of it before I do. "If you do not believe that the consecrated Host is the Body of Christ, it tells me that you probably understand the "substance" of bread but you might not understand the "substance" of the Risen Body of Christ." Is that a good conversation starter?

    • I'd probably point to John 6 rather than the philosophical meaning of "substance."

      • Pofarmer

        You need to read all of John 6.

  • Longshanks

    "If there is no God ... why precisely would someone burn with righteous indignation at violations of justice"
    The answer is "precisely" because if he didn't belong to a species that did so, we wouldn't have gotten this far. It seems that you're asking this question as if he had never answered it, at length and with, as you admit, great style. In any case anyone who wanted to know what Hitch thought about these sorts of questions would be well served by following your example and absorbing everything he wrote and said on camera. It will become painfully clear that "a man religious despite himself" was nothing of the kind.

    • Longshanks, thanks for the reply! However, within it I don't see any attempt to explain the origins of Hitchen's moral beliefs. For example, what reason would Hitchens give to explain why the Iraq War was morally wrong?

      • Andre Boillot

        Brandon,

        On the contrary, Hitchens was a vocal supporter of the 2003 invasion and war in Iraq, even after the WMD justification was proven false. You might wonder how Hitchens grounds his morality, but it's not difficult at all to find the reasons he gave for intervening in Iraq.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Long_Short_War:_The_Postponed_Liberation_of_Iraq

        • Thanks for the correction, Andre. I wasn't familiar with his views on the war, but that's beside my point. My point was that Hitchens or any other atheist lacks objective basis to say why the Iraq war, or any other act, is "bad" or "good." The most he can say is he didn't like it, a personal preference at best.

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            "My point was that Hitchens or any other atheist lacks objective basis to say why the Iraq war, or any other act, is "bad" or "good.""

            Pardon my saying so, but you appear either unaware of the many arguments put forth for objective morality without religion provided by Hitchens and others (Kant would be a classic example, Harris a more modern one), or have seemingly discarded them outright with no mention or explanation. Also, while you might disagree with their arguments, to reduce it to "the most [they] can say is [they] didn't like it, a personal preference at best", says more about a possible lack of intellectual honesty on your part, than some failure of theirs to address the issue.

          • Andre,

            Harris, and those like him, assume that the behavioral science literature provides positive evidence for ethical realism (i.e., the view that there are objective moral facts). On this view, natural selection can vindicate the moral evaluative claim that, for example, 'one ought not to steal', as that evaluative judgment is successful to survival.

            At first blush, it may seem right but this view *would only* entail that an individual ought to not steal on grounds that it has some negative effect on survival, and certainly not that 'one ought to not steal' on grounds that it is an objective fact, right? In fact, Harris is wandering into speculative error if he, and others like him, are suggesting that moral evaluative judgments *also* track objective moral facts.

            It seems to me that the behavioral science literature does not adequately explain why "someone [would] burn with righteous indignation at violations of justice." That is, why someone would believe that there exist moral facts and values. However, Christianity explains it rather nicely.

          • Andre Boillot

            Tim,

            "Harris, and those like him, assume that the behavioral science literature provides positive evidence for ethical realism (i.e., the view that there are objective moral facts)."

            First, I'm not sure you should lump Harris with others that attempt to describe non-religious based morality. Harris approaches the question from a largely scientific standpoint, while others such as Kant's approach to the issue is almost purely philosophical.

            "On this view, natural selection can vindicate the moral evaluative claim that, for example, 'one ought not to steal', as that evaluative judgment is successful to survival.

            At first blush, it may seem right but this view *would only* entail that an individual ought to not steal on grounds that it has some negative effect on survival, and certainly not that 'one ought to not steal' on grounds that it is an objective fact, right? In fact, Harris is wandering into speculative error if he, and others like him, are suggesting that moral evaluative judgments *also* track objective moral facts."

            Would it not be possible to flip this and say that the Christian view "*would only* entail that an individual ought to not steal on grounds that it has some negative effect on [salvation]"? With Christianity, you run into many situation in scripture where it appears that the morality of acts are based solely on God's whim at the time. Need to impress the Lord? Murder your eldest son. Need to settle a homeland? Kill everyone and take their wives. Etc... I mean, you and I know that most of the time these things are wrong, but every once in a while you have to allow that God will command you to do something that's normally wicked, right? Or, at least you had to back in the good ol' days.

            The nice part about approaches like Harris' is that while we might never reach some sort of mythical 'objective truth' that's always the case all the time (is it okay to lie to save a life?), we can at least (paradoxically) make inroads into combating the issues involved with different cultures and religions claiming different objective morals. Certain fundamentalist Muslim will claim it objectively good to disfigure or kill women who have been raped. In these cases, it's handy to be able to point to something other than "well my God says that's wrong".

            "It seems to me that the behavioral science literature does not adequately explain why "someone [would] burn with righteous indignation at violations of justice." That is, why someone would believe that there exist moral facts and values. However, Christianity explains it rather nicely.""

            I mean, yeah Christianity explains *everything* rather nicely, if it's true. You get to claim that even the atheist's sense of justice is somehow a little spark of the divine truth shining through. Which is nice.

          • "First, I'm not sure you should lump Harris with others that attempt to describe non-religious based morality.

            You're right. I wouldn't lump Harris in with good philosophers, as he isn't too good at it. There are plenty of *good* philosophers who attempt a salvage of morality without the deity.

            "Harris approaches the question from a largely scientific standpoint, while others such as Kant's approach to the issue is almost purely philosophical."

            No, not true. Kant's approach attempts to demonstrate that, just like physics, morality has certain objective laws. Furthermore, science *is* philosophy.

            "With Christianity, you run into many situation in scripture where it appears that the morality of acts are based solely on God's whim at the time. Need to impress the Lord? Murder your eldest son. Need to settle a homeland? Kill everyone and take their wives. Etc..."

            To think that for 2 thousand years religious scholars haven't considered how a supposed all loving God would allow acts like these is in fact, disingenuous.

            "The nice part about approaches like Harris' is that while we might never reach some sort of mythical 'objective truth'.."

            What!! I thought the whole claim of Harris' was that objective morality could exist without the deity. Now, you're saying objective morality is 'mythical'. It seems you are playing a semantical game. I think this is largely characteristic of the New Atheism's inability to follow *their own* premises.

            "I mean, yeah Christianity explains *everything* rather nicely, if it's true..."

            Assume, for sake of argument, that Christianity is true. Then it explains why you and you I both feel a sense of objective moral facts. If Christianity isn't true, then there *isn't* any reason to suppose that there are objective moral facts, as there isn't any *evidence* for them (i.e., the evolutionary literature *doesn't* support this view). Since, we *still* do believe that there are in fact objective moral facts, then the deity is a better explanation for their existence.

          • Andre Boillot

            Tim,

            "You're right. I wouldn't lump Harris in with good philosophers, as he isn't too good at it."

            Tssk, tssk. You've not shown your work.

            "No, not true. Kant's approach attempts to demonstrate that, just like physics, morality has certain objective laws. Furthermore, science *is* philosophy."

            Touche, I was sloppy with my terms. I should have gone with something more like 'neuroscience vs. metaphysics'. Regardless, my point was that you were lumping two very different styles together.

            "To think that for 2 thousand years religious scholars haven't considered how a supposed all loving God would allow acts like these is in fact, disingenuous."

            First of all, I didn't say that God merely allowed these acts, I'm talking about instances where God either commands people to commit otherwise heinous acts, or commits them himself.

            Second, claims like: 'you think nobody's thought of that?' tend to beg the question when you give no examples.

            "What!! I thought the whole claim of Harris' was that objective morality could exist without the deity. Now, you're saying objective morality is 'mythical'. It seems you are playing a semantical game. I think this is largely characteristic of the New Atheism's inability to follow *their own* premises."

            Again, maybe my fault for being clumsy. I'm saying that non-religious attempts to discern objective morals are unlikely to arrive at something resembling all-encompassing, absolute, best-practices. While these attempts may never arrive at a universally recognized perfect way to live, that doesn't mean they can't give us ways of making objective moral statements/judgments.

            "Assume, for sake of argument, that Christianity is true. Then it explains why you and you I both feel a sense of objective moral facts."

            I mean, I just said that.

            "If Christianity isn't true, then there *isn't* any reason to suppose that there are objective moral facts, as there isn't any *evidence* for them (i.e., the evolutionary literature *doesn't* support this view)."

            Christianity not being true doesn't rule out every other religion, does it? The Jews and Muslims still get to make their cases right?

            "Since, we *still* do believe that there are in fact objective moral facts, then the deity is a better explanation for their existence."

            Well, look at that! If only it had been so simple, we wouldn't have needed those 2000 years of religious scholasticism. The scales, they've fallen. You're arguing with an atheist, so I'm not sure that basing all your arguments on Christianity being true is going to be especially persuasive (you might start with addressing how "the Christian view "*would only* entail that an individual ought to not steal on grounds that it has some negative effect on [salvation]").

          • Doug Shaver

            My point was that Hitchens or any other atheist lacks objective basis to say why the Iraq war, or any other act, is "bad" or "good."

            OK. And therefore, what?

            The most he can say is he didn't like it, a personal preference at best.

            Can you tell me of one commandment, that you believe God has issued, that you personally dislike?

          • Charteris

            I think Brandon is being deliberately obtuse.

            What has religion to do with morality? The Christian bible, for example, is amoral at best and immoral at worst. Consider:

            1. Genocide is ok

            Genesis 8
            20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all
            the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings
            on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his
            heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans,
            even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from
            childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures,
            as I have done.

            2. Vicarious punishment is great

            Exodus 34
            He will by no means leave the guilty
            unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and
            on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

            3. Murder and incest: love it.

            Genesis 38

            7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so
            the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Sleep
            with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a
            brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.’ 9 But
            Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he
            slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the
            ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10
            What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put
            him to death also.

            4. Death to children: approved:

            2 Kings 2

            23 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was
            going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the
            city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald
            head; go up, thou bald head.

            24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them
            in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears
            out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

            And there are so many more examples. Take Lot for instance, or the Ca'naanites...

            Let's be grateful that secularism in the West is the order of the day and we do not take a moral reference from religion. Look at Afghanistan under the taliban - do you really aspire to that?

    • Hey Longshanks - I'm struck by your first line: "The answer is "precisely" because if he didn't belong to a species that did so, we wouldn't have gotten this far." This echoes Hitch's own take on "objective morality" in this debate with WLC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjEhSlPZmnk

      Quite a lot has been written about evolution and morality, and valiant attempts have been made to explain altruism in evolutionary terms. But the specter of relativism continues to haunt their work, as I think it haunted Hitch's response above. The first thing we'd have to question is: is morality objective and mind-independent, or subjective and culture-dependent? Is it something we uncover like archaeology or construct like architecture, to use Leah Libresco's phrasing?

      If we agree on moral realism (we may not) - that we discover objective moral wrongs in experience - evolution seems to fail to account for both the grounding of that wrongness and our discovery of it. The philosopher Thomas Nagel (himself an atheist) just wrote a fascinating little book called "Mind & Cosmos" in which he cogently argues that the framework of neo-Darwinian evolution fails to account for moral realism (among other things like consciousness, cognition, intentionality, etc.).

      A great place to explore and expand on this topic might be Leah's article "Evolution Doesn't Select For Ethics" at: https://strangenotions.com/evolution-ethics/

      Peace!

  • I never read anything by Hitchens, but I disliked listening to him during interviews. He didn't speak with any clear line of reasoning. He seemed to jerk around haphazardly. It seemed to be his goal to befuddle his interviewer with unpredictable points disconnected from what he had just said. Maybe he thought that inscrutable reasoning equaled profundity. He didn't impress me.

    • Mark Hunter

      Then I don't know who would. Love his opinions or hate them, and I did both. he was an awesome speaker and incredible writer.

      • True. He came to my school and debated Dinesh D'Souza and I was immediately won over by Hitch.

    • Charteris

      Hitchens was the most eloquent man I have ever heard. I don't think he thought that inscrutable reasoning equalled profundity, he just enjoyed inscrutable reasoning for its own sake - something to which a Theist cannot, by default, aspire.

      In the great words of Theramin Trees:

      Faith stifles free inquiry by protecting lies and silencing those who threaten to expose them.

      To the curious, three words: continue to enquire.

  • Sharon

    In considering Christopher Hitchens' sense of unconditional justice, I thought I'd look into what he had to say about abortion. Jill Stanek has an interesting article here: http://thedailyhatch.org/2011/12/19/christopher-hitchens-view-on-abortion-may-surprise-you/. He recognizes that we in the 20th century have too much scientific knowledge to pretend that an embryo is not human life, but he does not see injustice in the taking of that life. However, he must have suffered knowing that two siblings were aborted and that two of his own children died by abortion. I couldn't help seeing the photo posted with Jill's article and wishing I could have looked into those eyes, the eyes of a man who insisted he would NEVER believe, and just have been able to say, "Christopher, there's still time." I hope the prayers of Fr. Barron, and many others, were enough to help him overcome his obstinacy. It would be great to meet him and hear what happened in his final moments that ultimately lead him to heaven.

    • Andre Boillot

      Sharon,

      I don't know if you went on to read the Vanity Fair article they pull most of their quotes from:

      http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2003/02/hitchens200302

      Hitchen's view is much more nuanced than simply saying he saw no "injustice in the taking of that life".

      • Sharon

        Andre, thanks for directing me back to the Vanity Fair article. Until reading it, I was satisfied with accepting the idea that Christopher Hitchens was as smart as everyone said he was. Now I know that I'm not impressed with him at all. Comments like these strike me as shallow and silly:

        In discussing Margaret Sanger's disdain for those she felt were beneath her, he said: "(That is why a number of conservatives still secretly approve of the idea of Medicaid abortions. After all, look who’s having them.)" And Hitchens based this comment on, what? How did he happen to find out this "secret"? Did he have conservative friends who whispered it to him? Funny, I have lots of conservative friends and none of them have confided this secret to me yet. Instead, we point out the sad reality that 70% of abortion clinics are strategically located in minority neighborhoods, and it's not secret that we find that tragic for minority women and their children.

        "Miscarriage and stillbirth have made mourners of as many women as abortion has." Again, on what does he base this statement? Millions of women have suffered from the great sorrow of miscarriage, while far fewer have suffered from a stillbirth. Even so, these women, in their sorrow, are free from the knowledge that they actively sought the death of their children. Hitchens' comment makes light of the enormous suffering many, many post-abortive women experience. The guilt and regret they feel is far different from the sorrow of a woman who has experienced miscarriage or stillbirth.

        And this: "By rightly expanding our definition of what is alive and what is human, we have also accepted that there may be a conflict of rights between a potential human and an actual one." It's too bad that Christopher Hitchens isn't still with us so he could let us know what he means by a "potential human". What is a potential human, and at what point does this being become an "actual" human? It doesn't even make sense given his other points about the fact that we in the 20th and 21st centuries can no longer pretend that we don't know whether the unborn child is human or not.

        Given CH's reputation, I'm surprised at the sometimes snarky attitude in the article. A lot of average Internet Joes could have written something on that level. I'm very disappointed.

        • Andre Boillot

          Sharon,

          "(That is why a number of conservatives still secretly approve of the idea of Medicaid abortions. After all, look who’s having them.)" And Hitchens based this comment on, what? How did he happen to find out this "secret"? Did he have conservative friends who whispered it to him? Funny, I have lots of conservative friends and none of them have confided this secret to me yet."

          Well, he covered Washington DC for decades, for many different papers. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that's how he heard that "secret". You'll forgive me if I remain unsurprised that none of your conservative friends have outed themselves as racists, let alone pro-choice eugenicists. BTW, he didn't say all or most conservatives, he said *some*.

          "Miscarriage and stillbirth have made mourners of as many women as abortion has." Again, on what does he base this statement?"

          I'm curious as to what percentage of fertilized eggs you believe would naturally result in live births today. As in, how much natural waste is there in the reproductive process of modern humans? How much greater was that waste throughout the history of mankind? I believe this is what he means.

          "Given CH's reputation, I'm surprised at the sometimes snarky attitude in the article. A lot of average Internet Joes could have written something on that level. I'm very disappointed."

          You'll forgive me for pointing out that this gives you away as somebody that clearly doesn't have any business making claims as to Hitchens' reputation. He is know for being aggressive and confrontational. Fr. Barron himself describes Hitchens as "unfailingly intelligent, perceptive, funny, sarcastic, and addictively readable." I'm happy that we were able to progress you from critiquing excerpts to taking a look at the entire article in context. BTW, the article consisted of his being quoted, not his writing, and I would argue results in the worst possible way to experience Hitchens - without the style of either his verbal delivery, or written precision. If you're interested in hearing / reading straight from the source, well 'seek and ye shall find'. Or something.

          • Sharon

            Ok, Andre, if you want to stoop to name calling, how about if you back it up. Racist? Eugenicists? You can go right ahead and back up your assertions.

            Women don't mourn miscarriages that they didn't know they had, so that could not be what he meant. If by "waste" you mean loss of life, loss of potential, then he could even more so apply that to the intentional loss of life in abortion. What a waste to take a life you know exists (and Hitchens didn't deny its existence) and intentionally snuff it out. Otherwise I, for one, would not use the word "waste" to apply to children who were conceived but whose existence was never known.

            I am aware of Hitchens' reputation. I am just one of those people who isn't impressed with him. If you are, that's fine. I think if he's being quoted, that counts as "verbal delivery" though.

          • Andre Boillot

            Sharon,

            "Ok, Andre, if you want to stoop to name calling, how about if you back it up. Racist? Eugenicists? You can go right ahead and back up your assertions."

            Apologies if you thought I was calling you or your friends these things. I was trying to say that, even if they were, most wouldn't come out and say it.

            "I think if he's being quoted, that counts as "verbal delivery" though."

            Here I need to correct myself, I was under the impression the article was based on an interview he did. In fact, the VF article is his own.

            "Women don't mourn miscarriages that they didn't know they had, so that could not be what he meant."

            What he meant is informed by the sentence that preceded the one you quoted:

            "Either god or nature aborts an enormous quantity of unborn children at an early stage, either because of some early warning of unviability or—given the high number of birth defects that make it to full term—not."

    • Leila Miller

      Hitchens' words: "I was in my early teens when my mother told me that a predecessor fetus and a successor fetus had been surgically removed, thus making me an older brother rather than a forgotten whoosh…."

      I have a son that age. I cannot imagine what effect his mother's words had on young Hitchens. It is earth-shattering on many levels.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The sad part is that Hitchens is likely exactly where he wanted to be right now: Free from all those nauseating believers and their God.

    He's the reason why I think Hell is Heaven to an atheist.

    • Longshanks

      Of course I believe he's free from god where he is, but if there was a chance to be able to listen to him talk again, hell couldn't be that bad of a place.

  • Dear Fr. Robert Barron

    Can you state: "it is categorically (all times and places and circumstances) a grave moral error to command or condone the treatment of one human being by another as chattel, or property"?

    Can you state: "it is categorically (all times and places and circumstances) a grave moral error to command them to kill their own child"?

    Can you state: "It is categorically (all times and places and circumstances) a grave moral error to command soldiers to purposefully seek out and slaughter children"?

    To do so would be to condemn your supposed God by the actions recorded in your own 'Holy' Scriptures - isn't that correct?

    Anyone who cannot simply, unconditionally, and categorically condemn slavery, commanding the murder of a child, or the direct and purposeful mass murder of children does not speak from a position of any moral authority I would care to associate myself with, but from one of moral corruption. A moral corruption that is evidenced throughout history in the actions of the Church they follow and one that persists to this day in the coverup of priests abusing children in order to protect their image.

    As to why I care, this (large) image should make it quite plain: http://cl.ly/I22Z/o

    I assure you it isn't that I'm enamored with your theology.

    I'll be happy to expand upon that if asked.

    Do I have all moral answers? No. But I am happy to say I can categorically condemn slavery and child slaughter and by that standard alone I judge your Bible wanting.

    I would rather struggle in ignorance to find what I can than to wallow in delusion by pretending something is true when it plainly makes no sense.

    And if I'm wrong I would still reject the very concept of vicarious redemption by way of a scapegoating human sacrifice - if there a judgement judge me, I will pay for what I've done myself, thank you all the same.

    When you reject Catholicism and Christianity then we can talk about the issues with deism :)

    If you really want to convince me of the truth of Christianity I would recommend 1 Kings 18 (aka 3 Kings 18 DR) in which 850 'false' prophets were slaughtered when they couldn't produce evidence for their God, no excuses were accepted.

    • Randy Gritter

      it is categorically (all times and places and circumstances) a grave moral error

      This is problematic because morality has developed over time. God has called us to higher and higher moral standards. Once He accepted the rules of war where men, women and children of a defeated people were executed. That is not because God likes those rules. He accepted them because He needed to get the basics right first. Morality in the midst of war is a harder question that we would be called to address later.

      So why did God command it? He asked them to go to the greatest extreme of their day in ridding the promised land of heathen nations and heathen religions. Did it mean they would all die? No. In practice it meant that those who escaped knew they would never be allowed to return home. So they had to go somewhere where the Israelites were not. They could not go to the hills for a few months and then come back and hope to be welcomed. They had to go far and they had to go permanently.

      • I doubt any Christian scholar would agree with you as you basically just argued that morality is arbitrary, you should at least familiarize yourself with the Euthyphro dilemma and note that the appeal to escape the dilemma is to appeal that God is Goodness itself; which means you can't appeal to changing standards (or Goodness itself would be changing nature) so you are left defending slavery and infanticide as moral perfection; but your response is a common one.

        And this is why I will never again be a Christian. Never again will I be forced against my conscious to make excuses for slavery or mass slaughtering suckling infants.

        And I believe my morality is superior to religious appeals to morality because I don't claim to know any absolute answers for certain; I am always open to evidence and reason.

        If I ever hear God commanding me to kill my own child I will seek psychiatric help immediately. Can you say the same? Or would you pack up the mule and head to the designated mountaintop (metaphorically) as Andrea Yates did?

        Can you prove God didn't command her to kill her own children? Given that the Biblical God doesn't seem to have an issue with it when it is deemed 'necessary' I think you would be hard pressed to that task.

    • FreeSpeechIsImportant

      I realize this reply is quite a few months removed but I am curious how you plan to pay the debt yourself if you are judged?
      My problem is that I know I have committed wrongs (aka sins) and there is no way I can adequately make it up to those people I have wronged. I can try to make reparations but I know that due to the fact that both they and I are mortal and finite I will never be able to make adequate reparations.
      It is my understanding that once we human make certain kinds of mistakes we are guilty for all time and we can never completely undue or right our past mistakes because we can't change the past, we can't go back in time.
      To me, the sharing of and admitting of one's guilt is a big part of Christian religion that is rarely talked about today. Believing that there is a God that forgives us is very comforting to me and allows me to be a little more hopeful. This hope may be delusional in your eyes because it is based on the belief in loving and forgiving God but to me it does seem to bring some light into this world, it does seem to be more truthful than the idea that there is no God and that I am, for all eternity, indebted to the people I have wronged.
      The protestant theologian Paul Tillich talks about the Christian religion's ability to deal with this existential reality of guilt much better than I ever could. But after reading Tillich I would suggest reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church because - save the Bible - there is nothing that explains the situation of humankind better in my opinion.

  • DoctorDJ

    You listen to Hitchens, but do not hear him.

    You foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear.

    • Ignatius Antioch

      I read quite a bit of Hitchens, and I consistently found his treatment of religion to have more than a few obvious falsehoods. Specifically, I can think of his commentary on the dietary restrictions around pork, the majority of the statements he made about Pius XII, and the statements about the sexual practices of Orthodox Jews. I will not go so far as to claim that he was deliberately lying in those situations, but he most certainly did not bother with even a casual fact check to confirm that his prejudices are founded on reality.

      • DoctorDJ

        So you have a reasonable explanation for the ridiculous kosher dietary laws? I found Hitchens' "long pig" theory most entertaining.

        You may wish away the vatican's involvement with Naziism, but history continues to prove you wrong. And "Hitler's Willing Executioners" indites the whole of good christian German society. I cannot fathom catholics and lutherans willingly marching Jewish prisoners to death in the waning months of the war, when the outcome had long been decided. Shameful.

        And I'm not perverse enough to comment on the hasidic sexual practices (although they sound not unlike those of catholics http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/brooklyn/orthodox_jewish_man_gets_five_years_Hy0ljtIWLI9JxD6pLHRKXI )

        • Hey DoctorDJ - Please review the "Commenting Rules and Tips" ("Must Read") section of Strange Notions. We're aiming for charitable, thoughtful discussion of ideas from both sides. Offensive and fallacious comments such as your last paragraph will be deleted in the future. Thanks!

        • Ignatius Antioch

          I never claimed to have a better explanation, I merely said that he propagated falsehoods to support his opinions.

          Your second paragraph doesn't really make any truth claims other than "you're wrong, the Vatican was involved." I think that is something which is far from resolved.

          Whether you are perverse or not is hardly relevant (though I think you probably are, based on your link). What is relevant is that Hitchens published falsehoods which were easily testable. So, either he was unwilling to test these points himself or he deliberately lied. Either way, it does not speak well of his book as a whole.

          Something about someone who cannot be trusted in small matters and not trusting them in large ones...

          • Longshanks

            Which porcine gustatory regulations did he get wrong?

      • epeeist

        I read quite a bit of Hitchens, and I consistently found his treatment of religion to have more than a few obvious falsehoods

        It seems his views on Mother Teresa hold up

        • GreatSilence

          I'm not so sure of that. I read his book on MT last week, and while he has a few valid points of criticism it really should have been no more than an article. He stretches some points, repeats others, gets onto the high horse for pages at a time, and generally ends up ranting more against the Church and some of its practices than against MT per se. He quite clearly had an intense dislike for her, and that in my view skews his assessment of her. I say this as a big Hitch fan.

        • GreatSilence

          Coyne's article seems to have more substance to the allegations. Seems worth a read.

        • Robin Francis
  • Johanne_Leroux

    "For the classical theological tradition, God is not a being in the world, one object, however supreme, among many"
    This paragraph is very well written and very interesting. As an atheist (raised catholic), I have experienced times of great connection with the world and am completely awed by the Goodness of humans and the feelings of animals, by Truth and by Beauty. I absolutely do not contest the greatness of all of this. What I do not believe in is the supernatural. I do not believe that one needs a god to perform acts of kindness and love fiercely. I do not believe that prayer will cure a cancer, or help famine, I believe that actions do. I love science and all it provides in understanding, explaining and expanding our view of the universe, but I think art can exist without it, and that it brings something unique into our lives. So, in my opinion, calling Hitchins, or any other atheist a person who loves god because he had common values is somehow misrepresenting this person's views.

    I do think many religious and non religious people have many values in common. Sometimes it just gets lost in the arguments about what exactly IS Goodness,Truth and Beauty.

    • Randy Gritter

      Thanks for that. I do think that when we get precise about what we mean then often we do come close together. What exactly is goodness, truth and beauty? Many atheists refuse to seriously ponder that question. It might very well lead them to God if they did. My guess is it would be a God very different from the one they rejected when they chose atheism. I do agree with almost all of your first paragraph. Will prayer cure cancer? In general, No. If the world is ever free of cancer my expectation is that it will happen through science. Still can prayer cure one particular cancer? Yes. We should always pray with the understanding that healing is possible for God even if it seems unlikely.

      • Johanne_Leroux

        In my experience, atheists do not refuse to ponder important questions any more or any less than different religious people do. I do not have studies on this, but my hunch would be that the number who do would be pretty much the same. I guess this exists in the same way that you acknowledge science and what it can do, some atheists (*some*, not all) will try to portray you as a someone who holds medieval beliefs about science, medicine and psychology.

        Many philosophers are and have been atheists. I think about the impact, the goodness, of my actions all the time. I volunteer in my community. My experience and thought process led me to no longer believe in god and that Jesus was a deity. That doesn't mean that all that my parents and teachers taught me in terms of values is gone.

      • Doug Shaver

        What exactly is goodness, truth and beauty? Many atheists refuse to seriously ponder that question. It might very well lead them to God if they did. My guess is it would be a God very different from the one they rejected when they chose atheism.

        I have pondered that question a lot. It has not led me back to theism.

        And I did not choose atheism. I never decided to stop believing. I just reached a point where I no longer could believe. If there was any choosing, atheism chose me.

  • Frank O’Meara

    My congratulations to Father Barron for his testimony on Hitch. Luckily the latter can no longer react to it. His comments would have been the mother of all the slappings Hitch was famous for. Like me, who happens to be author of a self-published book, "From Illusions to Illumination. The Itinerary of a Franciscan Priest from Catholicism to Atheism", the inimitable and irreplaceable (thank God ?) Hitchens was obsessed by the very idea of "God", which is not quite the same thing Fr Barron suggests. I have expressed both my admiration for and criticism of Christopher Hitchens in my blog (faithandfolly.canalblog.com) in a short reflection entitled "Theocratic Fascism". Readers interested will discover other sometimes serious, sometimes entertaining, often wry reflections, teasers and ticklers, to help believers on the brink realize that their belief has blinded them to the vision and the truth that alone can make them free. I would be honored and my blog, "Blind Faith : Blind Folly", enriched if Father Barron and others chose to comment on my own reasons for ending each of my reflections with my signature "Delenda Religio", a mantra I believe Chris would have liked.
    Frank O'Meara, a.k.a. "Frank O'Phile"

  • thomnotaquin

    A good try by Fr Barron but Richard Dawkins dealt with the underlying error in his argument; namely that only those who believe in God can develop a conscience or a moral framework. Indeed one could argue that only those who quite independently of any religious faith have developed a strong moral framework can reject the claims of religion including belief in God.

    • Maximus Meridius

      Richard Dawkins was debunked by a simple question of a simple Tongan Islander. Can atheism get rid of Cannibalism just as Christianity had?

      • epeeist

        Richard Dawkins was debunked by a simple question of a simple Tongan Islander. Can atheism get rid of Cannibalism just as Christianity had?

        You believe that cannibalism is objectively wrong? How do you know that?

  • Andrew Stapleton

    This is somewhat off-topic, but something I always wanted to understand better is how atheists dealt with Hitchens' death.

    From the (however brief) reading I have done, it is clear that many atheists had fierce respect and love for the man. It strikes me that one's belief in God or claim to atheism would have a profound effect on how they feel and how they deal with the death of a loved one (whether or not Hitchens was a personal acquaintance).

    As a Catholic my recourse would be well known - I would pray for the soul of the deceased and try to take comfort that they are/will eventually be with God in Heaven.

    I realized I have no real understanding of how atheists reacted to this and would very much appreciate if any on this site would like to comment. This is not really meant to be an argument in my defense or any kind of a trap, and I would also add that I am sorry for your loss.

    -Andrew

    • Andre Boillot

      First, I looked up his favorite drink: Johnnie Walker Black Label & Perrier (personally I think the Perrier is the only thing that makes Johnnie Walker palatable) and got drunk.

      Second, not that I wasn't already in the habit of watching his speeches / debates, I did a farewell lap of sorts and watched what I had considered his "greatest hits".

    • Jonathan West

      This is somewhat off-topic, but something I always wanted to understand better is how atheists dealt with Hitchens' death.

      We express that respect in carrying on with his work.

  • Jonathan West

    For the classical theological tradition, God is not a being in the world, one object, however supreme, among many. The maker of the entire universe cannot be, himself, an item within the universe, and the one who is responsible for the nexus of causal relations in its entirety could never be a missing link in an ordinary scientific schema.

    This is fallacious. If God intervenes within the universe in ways that can be discerned by humans, then evidence of those interventions is an entirely valid subject for scientific study. It is only by means of such interventions as the religious believe have occurred that they have evidence for God's existence and characteristics.

    So, it is entirely appropriate for science to review the phenomena which religious people interpret as being of divine origin and to see whether this is indeed the case, or alternatively whether there is a wholly natural explanation.

    To ignore the fact that these claimed interventions are amenable to scientific investigation and instead to claim that God (in the traditional theistic sense) is beyond scientific scrutiny is special pleading.

    God is not some good thing, but Goodness itself; not some true object but Truth itself; not some beautiful reality, but Beauty itself.

    If you regard God as being a synonym for all these things, then you don't believe that he is a Person with both the will to intervene in the world and the means of doing so. in other words you don't believe in the existing of the theist intervening variety of God, and you are as much of an a-theist as I am.

  • epeeist

    Can we get rid of the "new atheist" schtick. It was a phrase invented by the media as a method of labelling a few individuals. The sole difference between "old atheists" and "new atheists" appears to be this one.

  • Timothy Reid

    I've enjoyed Fr. Barron's videos and homilies in the last year since I've started watching and reading his words.
    I enjoyed this article because he spoke with genuine admiration for Christopher Hitchens as a strong intellect, great writer and pugnacious defender of justice and fairness. I have to concede that he is all of those things. His decision to be all of those things and still say that he does not need to believe in a God to be all of those things is what I don't agree with. I believe that belief in anything higher than yourself such as goodness, justice, kindness or peace IS belief in something higher than you and I call that "God".

    I am about to introduce my sophomores in theology class to the book of Job and I hope that if there are any students who are leaning towards atheism that they feel free to discuss and debate freely while we wind our way through this difficult, but ultimately very WISE, book. It's not perfect. It's very ancient, but it does result in a much more humble and less arrogant humanity if understood in its' proper context.
    Thanks again, Fr. Barron, and hope that "strangenotions" keeps having great posts to discuss and debate in a respectful manner.
    PEACE

  • Irish Shilelegah

    I share Father Barron's love of Hitchens. However, Fr. Barron seems to be quite puzzled why an atheist could possibly be so moral & good & fair. He likely expects atheists to be more selfish and mean -- I mean, c'mon they don't believe in God right?? To sate his thirst for an answer he makes a clumsy leap of faith and explains the discrepancy as a sort of God's will. Guess what...some people don't need faith (or an eternal reward) to be honest & just people. These are the people I tend to trust most. Those being "good" mostly because of some expectation of a reward later foster my deep mistrust. Hitchens was more HONEST than any theist I've ever met. His untimely death was a tragedy, and he is deeply missed.

  • If the acerbic comments from atheists on your videos prove they are seeking God, one can argue that such love of Hitchens is proof you're seeking atheism. Well Your Excellency, I'm sure you can see the flaw here. As to his sense of ethics, there have been arguments for an objective morality from a purely secular foundation. Naturally you do not agree with these, but they exist. I would certainly be interested as to any critiques you might have of these moral theories. Hitchens would not appreciate your view of him, I'm sure, but then you probably knew that.