An atheist critique of Christopher Hitchens

An avowed atheist named Curtis White has attacked the late Christopher Hitchens for being unfair to religion.   He stated in an article entitled Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors on the Salon web site this morning that Hitchens’ God Is Not Great is not only wrong, but dishonest.  He said Hitchens’ book was full of factual errors and failed to appreciate how much of culture, philosophy and civilization itself is embedded in religion—both valid criticisms.

Beyond this, White attacked Hitchens for his belief in individual reason and conscience, which is not a valid criticism.  White thinks reason and conscience are incoherent concepts, and no substitute for the authority of poetry and religion.  So he may be an atheist, but he is not a freethinker or a rationalist.

I’ve encountered this kind of anti-anti-religious polemic before, when people without definite religious beliefs themselves say atheists are out of line for attacking religion.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

White did not mention the most important theme of God Is Not Great—that religion makes it possible to commit crimes with impunity.  Hitchens piled up example after example.   When the theocratic ruler of Iran took out a murder contract on an allegedly blasphemous writer, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem condemned the writer’s irreverence, not the instigation to murder.  Catholic clerics who helped instigate the Rwandan genocide were given sanctuary in France at the urging of the Vatican.

The Bush administration for supposedly religious reasons worked against use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Muslim governments have sentenced people to death merely for renouncing Islam.  American religious fanatics bombed abortion clinics and murdered abortion doctors.  Religious Zionist settlers on the West Bank are a chief obstacle to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Hitchens claimed that his examples show that organized religion is all or mostly bad.  I don’t agree, but I think that he did show that religion provides a shield people to get away with things that anyone else would be condemned and punished for. Suppose a public school superintendent shielded a teacher who sexually abused little boys – you can imagine what would happen. Yet the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Ireland for years protected pedophile priests and got away with it.

GodIsNotGreatUnfortunately, as White correctly noted, God Is Not Great was riddled with easily check-able factual errors.

Contrary to Hitchens, the Q document is not a lost book that formed the basis of the four Gospels. The Dalai Lama does not seek to return as hereditary ruler of Tibet. “Syntopic” is not the opposite of “apocryphal.”  Catholic Maryland in colonial times never barred Protestants from public office.  The Bible scholar Bart (not “Barton”) Ehrman was not the first one who found that early versions of Mark had no mention of meetings with the resurrected Jesus.  I think I could add more examples, if I had the book in front of me.

I think these mistakes were due to carelessness rather than intentional dishonesty, as White charges.  The errors do not affect Hitchens’ main arguments, but they do undermine his credibility.

Hitchens’ insistence that religion is all bad, and that opponents of religion are all good, forced him into strenuous intellectual contortions.  He had to explain away the evangelical Protestants who campaigned for abolition of slavery on the one hand, and the crimes of the atheist Stalin on the other, which he did not convincingly do and could not have done.

As White points out, our civilization and culture are a product of religion, even for atheists like Hitchens.  In Western civilization, without Christianity, there is no Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Flannery O’Connor, no Christmas carols or Negro spirituals, no Sistine Chapel or Chartres cathedral, no Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez or Archbishop Romero.

If I were better educated, I am sure I could make up an equivalent list for other civilizations.  I can’t imagine China without Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, India without Hinduism or the Muslim world without its core religion.

Religious congregations provide people with community, ritual, moral ideals and a way to understand their feelings of transcendence.  I have been impressed throughout my life by the simple, unpretentious goodness of ordinary religious people.  Hitchens was unable to acknowledge this.

But religious belief is not necessarily inspiring or consoling.  Hitchens wrote a chapter on the doctrines of blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement, eternal punishment and guilt for failing impossible tasks, which reflects my own experience.  I remember the sense of guilt I felt as a young teenage boy as I listened to Easter sermons about the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and how it was because of the sins of people like me that Jesus had to suffer a horrible death on my cross.  I heard about this every Easter. It was almost too much to bear.

I was freed by the use of reason, the strange metaphysical concept that, according to White, nobody can define.  For me, reason requires asking two questions: Does this make sense?  Does it contradict known facts?  It did not make sense to me that a loving Heavenly Father could be deterred from sentencing me to an eternity of pain only by the torture and death of someone else, and so I stopped believing it.

White contends that conscience comes from religious teaching, not the other way around.  I thought the same for many years, and it bothered me that I did not have any supposed religious foundation for my moral beliefs.  What changed my mind was reading Kierkegaard’s essay on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac because he thought God commanded him to do so.  If Abraham not been willing, Kierkegaard wrote, then he would have put his love for his son and his personal moral beliefs ahead of belief in God.

Today’s world is full of people who believe that God has commanded them to kill, and, like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” they put their faith in God ahead of their affections or their moral beliefs.  That kind of faith is evil.

White, who does not believe in God, affirms religion as the source of morality.  But if God does not exist, where do religion’s moral teachings come from?  They must come from human beings, based on their own individual thoughts and feelings.   So how would that be different from humanism?  I would respect White more if he weren’t so reticent about his own beliefs.

White’s Salon essay is a chapter of a newly-published book, The Science Delusion, which I haven’t read.   The title indicates it is a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  I have no quarrel with White if all he does is stress the importance of literature, philosophy and tradition, and defend them against foolish claims that science can replace them.   But based on the sample chapter, I think I would not like his book.

The Salon chapter is a vituperative personal attack based not on what Hitchens wrote, but on motives White attributes to Hitchens without evidence.  God Is Not Great was published in 2007.  Hitchens died in 2011.  White had plenty of time to attack Hitchens when he was alive to answer back.   But a living dog is always a match for a dead lion.

Click on Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheists no favors for Curtis White’s full Salon article

Click on The real problem with Curtis White’s The Science Delusion for a review of White’s book.

Click on Taking on scientism’s big bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins and Pinker for another review of White’s book.


Not everything that comes under the heading of “religion” is the same, and nor is everything that comes under the heading of “unbelief.”  The early books of the Hebrew Bible praise wars of extermination against people with false beliefs, and Jesus condemned people who rejected his message to eternal torment. From this it is only a few steps to the Crusades and Inquisition, and from there only a few steps more to modern totalitarianism.

At the same time, the Mosaic law and Hebrew prophets gave us the beginnings of our ideas of social justice, and Christians and Muslims created religions that made no distinctions of race, nationality, ethnicity or social class, and preached the same creeds to the masses as to philosophers and sages. From this there is a logical progression to ideas of democracy and equal rights.

The line between good and bad, and truth and falsehood, runs not between religion and unbelief, but within them.

What religion does for people is to make them stronger, not necessarily better. Following a religion can empower you to overcome addiction, laziness, cowardice and other sins of the flesh, but it only makes you more kindly, forgiving, humble, patient and dutiful if you want these qualities to begin with; religion equally well reinforces intolerance, chauvinism, ignorance and ruthlessness.

I am a Unitarian Universalist, a member of a small sect which affirms certain religious values, but requires no pretense of belief in any religious doctrines.  I have no answers for the metaphysical questions that religion claims to answer.  Unitarian-Universalism gives me community, ritual and moral support.   I have secular humanist friends who have no need for that.  This is fine.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them; it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me.

I do not at present possess a copy of God Is Not Great.  My description of the book is based partly on notes I wrote in 2009.

[Postscript 6/24/13]

The most vehement critics of Christopher Hitchens are intellectuals such as Terry Eagleton who inhabit a vague borderline between belief and unbelief, and object to demands that they declare themselves one way or the other.

Many Bible-believing Christians had a grudging respect for Christopher Hitchens as a worthy opponent.  They invited him to debates and were willing to meet him in argument.

Hitchens did share with evangelical Christians a conviction that there is a difference between truth and falsehood, and that it is important to know the difference.  That is why a certain type of postmodernist calls Hitchens a “literalist” or “fundamentalist.”   Reason has other enemies besides dogmatic religious people.

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8 Responses to “An atheist critique of Christopher Hitchens”

  1. informationforager Says:

    This is very, very good. You hit the nail on the head with this one. This post is so good that I can’t even thing of one thing to add. Thank you.


  2. violetwisp Says:

    Really interesting post. I think you sum up what religion does for people perfectly, and also make an excellent case for atheists to acknowledge that there can be positive effects in religion. It’s easy to get carried away with the constant criticisms, I know I do …


  3. EthnicKonflict Says:

    Wow, an excellent defense of one of my favorite intellectual heroes. I can really only criticize Hitchens for not believing in himself that he could win the argument. From your criticism of post-Modernism, where I take you to be alluding to Relativism, I infer that you may be a conservative like myself. At any rate, you are welcome in my circle.


    • philebersole Says:

      Well, if believing that there is a real difference between truth and falsehood, and between right and wrong, makes you a conservative, then I belong under that big tent, along with Christopher Hitchens (even though he always considered himself part of the left).

      But I think this is a question that cuts across political ideologies. It was a member of the George W. Bush administration who ridiculed the “reality-based community.”


      • EthnicKonflict Says:

        It was Leo Strauss who chose superstition over wonder. However, I think for more conservatives than many realize, this is a major point of contention. If it is a non-existent one, all the better, for more people can then be defined as holding conservative values. In that case then, 56% of the national populace find themselves ostracized from reason partly over a winnable point.


  4. Dhaval Mahajan Says:

    Just pointing out that you made an error when you claimed that Chinese culture was the only place where the impact of Buddhism was felt. Buddhism was actually founded in India, and affected a lot of regions across all of South and East Asia, not just China. Regardless, it does not affect the main argument, but it do undermine your credibility.


    • philebersole Says:

      I never claimed that China was the only culture influenced by Buddhism. I mentioned China as one of several examples of cultures shaped by religions other than Christianity. I never stated nor (I hope) implied that this was an exhaustive list of all the world’s cultures.


  5. Rumel ali Says:

    Yes what you say about hitchens is absolutely true … He was paid a lot of money and promotions were within his contract to mock every religious group and be very explicit and extremely vulgar and use every part of his English literature to good use and indeed he did what no one could in every department. .yes most of his nonsense was absolute garbage and he made it more sexey by adding good literature to it ..shame such knowledge of a man was wasted on a negative note and he died on that note


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