SPidge Tales

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Proof of God's Existence: A Critique of Christopher Hitchens' not-so-great book

I saw proof of God’s existence at a public school. My seeds of doubt, planted by the witty verbatim of that scotch swilling, verb shilling, British import Christopher Hitchens, were gloriously uprooted in a high school auditorium. A presentation called Rachel's Challenge, a program in honor of Rachel Scott, victim of the Columbine Massacre, cleansed my heart of Hitchens’ poison; through the glimpse of a tear-stained rose, I was reminded, like Antoine Exupery’s Little Prince, that what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Hitchens rightly prefaces God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything with a quote from Ivan Karamazov’s The Grand Inquisitor, the famous legend in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Hitchens is no emotionless logician, content to politely throw syllogisms at his opponent, waiting patiently for his argument to win out in the friendly match of ideas. He is a combative rhetorician; like Nietzsche, ready to philosophize with a hammer. His battle with God is no trite intellectual exercise; like Ivan Karamazov, creator of that grand indictment of the deity, Hitchens is in rebellion with the Almighty.

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.” So asks Ivan to his brother, the saintly Alyosha. Hitchens uses this quote to open chapter 16. Yet, it serves Hitchens as not much more than an anecdote, to later bring his chapter on religion as child abuse to closure. To serve his purpose, he could have done more. That tiny passage contains the greatest argument against God in all of literature.

In Book V, chapter 4, of The Brothers Karamazov: Rebellion, Ivan outlines his case against God. He understands Christian theodicy. He understands the dilemma (If God is omnipotent and good, how come evil exists? An omnipotent God who allows evil could not be good; a good God who allows evil could not omnipotent, or he would stop evil). He understands the Christian answer (God gives man free will; man freely chose evil). But Ivan gives examples, such as the baby beating its fist, above, and a child torn to pieces by dogs on order of a soldier. Even if that poor child goes to heaven, and even if the evil abusers burn in the fires of hell, even if harmony is restored and all sing hosanna gloriously to God, Ivan still cannot accept a world built on the suffering of children. It is a foolproof argument, and Dostoyevksy, Ivan’s creator, admitted as much. Hitchens follows in Ivan’s grand tradition, and his argument could have been greater advanced if he explored Ivan’s dilemma more. Hitchens is a literary critic, and what better angle to advance his thesis than to grapple with the most famous fictional opponent of what he considers the world’s great poison?

While Richard Dawkins attacks religion from the perspective of Darwinism in The God Delusion, Hitchens has entered into rebellion against God. He writes an invective history of God, chronicling religion’s lacerations into the heart of man. If one wants to write a negative history, pick a broad enough topic, and one can do it. Howard Zinn chose the United States and created a history of America through the paradigm of Western imperialism in A People’s History of the United States. Hitchens’s target is religion, Western, Eastern, and anything in between.

Sins in the name of God are legion, and there is no triangulation around the critiques presented in this book. From Hitchens’s framework, as from Ivan’s framework, the argument against God is logically unassailable. To critique an atheist argument from a Christian perspective is similar to critiquing a theocracy from a democratic perspective. Like Alistair MacIntyre’s explanation of competing moral claims in chapter two of After Virtue, arguments pro and contra just-war, abortion, socialized medicine, and other divisive issues cannot be solved when each side frames the issue from internally logically valid, but non-crossing, perspectives. Dostoyevksy does not attempt a logical response to Ivan through one of his Christian characters, but rather presents a compelling alternative in the Christ-like love of Fr. Zossima, and shows the fruitlessness of Ivan’s lifestyle. That is, Ivan’s beliefs may be logically coherent, but they are unlivable.

I must confess, immediately after completing Hitchens’s book, I was troubled. There is so much wrong with the world, and much is caused by religion. I even pondered a world without God. But, at the school where I teach, students, faculty, and staff were brought to the auditorium for a presentation. At that high school presentation, I was touched by the life story of Rachel Scott, first victim of the Columbine shooting in 1999. A beautiful young woman at the dawn of life, she was a wonderful poet and artist. She preached kindness and tolerance, and encouraged people to ‘pass it on,’ so to speak; she believed we should do good deeds for others when others are kind to us. Soon after the shooting, the speaker told us, a random man from Ohio called the father of Rachel Scott and told him of a vision he had in his sleep. He described it in detail. The father didn’t know what to make of it, but a few weeks later after looking through Rachel’s final diary entry, he noticed a picture she drew the morning of the shootings—a picture that matched perfectly that random man’s heretofore unexplained vision: she drew two eyes, spilling forth thirteen tears onto a rose (thirteen was the number of innocents murdered that day). My faith—in God, in religion, in humanity—was restored.


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