Thursday, April 12, 2012

Christopher Hitchens on “Atheism”

Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), xx-xxi.
There is an argument within the community of those who reject…this fantasy about the utility of the word “atheist.” For one thing, it is a pure negative: a statement of mere unbelief or disbelief. Dr. Jonathan Miller, for example, a distinguished physician and theater and opera director, is uneasy with the term for this reason: “I do not have,” he once told me, “a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe such things.” True enough—but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.

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8 comments:

Scott Rice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Rice said...

"True enough—but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway."

What do you think this means?

W. Travis McMaken said...

I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, Scott. Can you say a bit more?

Wayne Stokeling said...

Mr. Miller and Mr. Hitchens has attempted to trivialize our belief in God and their lack thereof.

Scott, he is projecting that our belief is just an older myth that was started in the same manner as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

W. Travis McMaken said...

One can hardly blame him for such a view, even if one would disagree.

Scott Rice said...

Just clarification. Thanks.

Scott Rice said...

Travis, I am interested to know why you say that one can hardly blame him for holding the view that the Christian faith's (I assume this one) origins are likened to belief in one of Hitchen's examples. Do you simply mean its basis is non-foundational, i.e., not empirically provable?

W. Travis McMaken said...

I would hardly attach the word "simply" to that sentence. Religion developed as an attempt to explain things in the world for which we had no other explanation. Basically, our brains are wired to explain things and they will make "educated guesses" (i.e., make stuff up on analogy to things we do know) if they have to. What happens in modernity is that the list of things we need explanations for gets really short, and shorter every day. We've moved well beyond a number of the old religious explanations (on thinks of Zeus' relation to lightning). We would generally look down on an adult who went around talking to an imaginary friend. There is not a single generally accessible and objectively verifiable reason to affirm God's existence.

Throw on top of that the negative side of religion (oppression, social control, etc.) and...one can hardly blame Hitchens for such a view.

My own personal view is that one is not truly a Christian if one has not woken up one day to the realization that the whole thing is really rather nonsensical.