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Atheism vs. Faith: Are human beings fundamentally weak? Or strong?

August 11, 2010

Here again is The New Republic’s Damon Linker, reflecting on the approaching death (from cancer) of well-known writer and devoted atheist, Christopher Hitchens (author of, among other books, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything):

What is it, finally, that divides the believer from the atheist? The question comes to mind in observing renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens endure, in full public view, metastatic esophageal cancer. In a remarkable Vanity Fair column, then in an interview with the vapid Anderson Cooper on CNN, and once again in a videotaped interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Hitchens has movingly described his condition, his experience of chemotherapy, and many other aspects of his illness.

But the statements that have sparked the greatest discussion are the ones in which Hitchens declares that those religious believers who hope he will undergo a deathbed conversion are bound to be disappointed. Any such conversion, if it happened, would be the product of a brain consumed by cancer and a body wracked by pain. It should not be taken seriously, in other words, as a genuine expression of the beliefs and desires of the man known as Christopher Hitchens. It should instead be dismissed as the deluded ramblings of someone driven out of his right mind by suffering and disease. And the statements of a man in such a state tell us nothing worth knowing, either about him or about God.

Linker goes on to compare Hitchens’ public comments to the writings of Holocaust survivor and confirmed atheist, Primo Levi. Levi once recounted his brush with death in 1944 when he faced a German assessor deciding whether he would be exterminated immediately or deemed healthy enough to continue doing hard labor. As Levi recounted:

For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

Linker then offers an answer his question about the fundamental difference between atheists and believers:

In their statements, Levi and Hitchens imply that a person’s capacity to determine the truth depends on his or her ability to think calmly, coolly, dispassionately. It depends on the capacity to bracket aspects of one’s subjectivity (like intense emotions, including fear of imminent death) that might distort one’s judgment or obstruct the effort to achieve an unbiased, objective view of the world in itself… From this standpoint, the terrified, irrational effusions of a man facing his own extinction are no more to be trusted than a blind man’s account of a crime scene: each witness lacks the capacity to perceive, make sense of, and accurately judge the essential facts. Far more reliable are the sober, critical reflections of a man in good health, protected from danger, insulated from threats to his well being. That, for Levi and Hitchens, is a man at his best and most capable of determining the truth of things.

Religious believers… make very different assumptions about the proper path to truth and what constitutes a man at his best… A Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries. That we greedily crave good things for ourselves—many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.

For the religious person, human beings are at their best when they accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration. Human beings are at their worst, by contrast, when they deny the fact of their frailty, deluding themselves into believing in their self-sufficiency.

Levi and Hitchens reside in the first camp, believing that they are most themselves when they are healthy and free—at the height of their human powers… But the devout reside in the second camp, insisting that human beings are truest to themselves—most authentic—when they are most vulnerable.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Murray permalink
    August 11, 2010 4:24 pm

    I think the Bible puts it best, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells….” (Romans 7:18)

    Therefore, biblically spekaing, to be at the height of one’s human powers is no big prize.

    I’ll stick with Jesus on this one.

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    “Blessed are those who mourn,
    For they shall be comforted.”


  2. Suzie Babcock permalink
    August 12, 2010 4:15 pm

    Christopher’s brother Peter Hitchens has a new ( May, 2010) book out which might be a worthy antidote : “The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith”.

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