Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.”

In chapter five, “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” Hitchens argues that religion is the product of a pre-modern people who sought answers to explain the unknown. He writes:

I wrote earlier that we never again have to confront the impressive faith of an Aquinas or Maimonides (as contrasted with the blind faith of millennial or absolutist sects, of which we have an apparently unlimited and infinitely renewable supply). This is for a simple reason. Faith of that sort—the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason—is now plainly impossible.
After spending a few pages recapping natural phenomena explained by scientists that priests and shamans previously wrote off as “acts of God.” He says that “There would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable.”

Finally, Hitchens warns us of Ockham’s razor, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” We don’t need the god hypothesis to explain the world, so we need to stop pretending that he or she or they are there.

I was prepared for some philosophical discussion in this chapter, but I was let down. Hitchens doesn’t argue the impossibility of miracles—he simply dismisses them. God is not Great is an atheistic book unlike any other I have read. There are no philosophical arguments. There are no attacks on the accuracy of the Bible. Hitchens doesn’t fight with logic or reason; the primary weapons in his arsenal are wit and ridicule.

And he’s effective.

I had to stop and reflect on Hitchens’ attack on the metaphysical claims of religion before offering a response. His argument is, “I don’t need God, so I don’t believe in God.” Do I want to respond to that by saying we need God? Well, in one sense I do think that we need God. But if I am honest, I am not sure that that is why I am a Christian. I am not sure that I am a Christian because I would be in despair if there were no God. It’s not so much that I think there has to be a God, as it is that I think that there probably is a God.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares materialists to the insane. (Chesterton uses the word “materialist” to describe someone we might call a naturalist—someone who doesn’t believe in God or the supernatural.) He writes:

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful king of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is
not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.
Later he writes:

His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of a madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.

If the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.
In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright writes about four things that a naturalistic universe cannot explain: our longing for justice, our sense of beauty, our desire for community, and our need for the spiritual. Ockham’s razor may imply that Hitchens is right, but his cosmos, the cosmos that cannot explain justice, beauty, love, or the spiritual, looks more like the conspiracy theory of a madman than it does the real world that we live in.

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