The New Apocrypha

by Henry on December 19, 2011

Ross Douthat

Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) … where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost-filial connection that many Christians felt for him. … Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and “Brideshead Revisited” surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science. In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so. At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find. … When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that “death is no different whined at than withstood.” Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair. My hope — for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead — is that now he finally knows why.

John Sladek

“Houdini’s ghost was not even then allowed to rest. In the same year it was summoned by another medium to Conan Doyle’s home, where, after complaining of the darkness, it said:

‘It seems cruel that a man in my position should have thrown dust in the eyes of people as I did. Since my passing, I have gone to many, many places (mediums) but the door is closed to me. …. When I try to tell people of the real truth, they say I am not the one I claimed to be, because when I was on earth I did not talk that way. I ask you here to send me good thoughts to open the door, not to the spirit world – that cannot be yet – but to give me strength ad power to undo what I denied. …’

Thus, the man who devoted his life to the cause of spiritualism, by trying to rid it of frauds who feed on grieving hearts, was made to mouth this childish, demented apology.’

Myself, I find Harry Houdini a far more attractive figure than was Christopher Hitchens. And I don’t imagine that Douthat is being deliberately dishonest here – indeed, I suspect he thinks that he’s paying Hitchens a compliment. But the rest of the analogy carries.

{ 78 comments }

1

mpowell 12.19.11 at 8:45 pm

So anyone who doesn’t despair of life is a closet xtian? Good grief. Well turn around is fair play, then. Douthat’s writing on religion is so pathetic and trite that it leads me to wonder if it’s just a performance.

2

JanieM 12.19.11 at 8:50 pm

When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor

I think it’s Douthat’s arrogant, small-minded, condescending, plodding [I could think of more adjectives but why bother?] idiocy that casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.

What a creep he is.

3

Jim Demintia 12.19.11 at 8:54 pm

Somewhere on the other side of the Styx, the Earl of Rochester just made the sign of the cross.

4

Henry 12.19.11 at 8:55 pm

bq. I think it’s Douthat’s arrogant, small-minded, condescending, plodding [I could think of more adjectives but why bother?] idiocy that casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor.

What need you, being come to sense?
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the half-pence to the pence
And prayer to quivering prayer until
You have dried the marrow from the bone.

5

bert 12.19.11 at 8:56 pm

Everyone thought when they sacked Bill Kristol that at least it couldn’t get worse.
Douthat is essentially the same thing, delivered in the style of an Alan Bennett vicar.

Should a man like that really be sneering about belief in fairy tales?

6

Substance McGravitas 12.19.11 at 9:01 pm

rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor

I am feeling awfully empowered right now.

7

Jacob T. Levy 12.19.11 at 9:07 pm

Such is always the fate of the deceased atheist who was not miserable. Tales of deathbed conversions will be fabricated, seances will be staged, etc., etc. It’s one of the ruder things that a certain kind of religious believer does.

(I *still* encounter students at the university level who were taught in Catholic school about Hume’s deathbed conversion.)

8

alkali 12.19.11 at 9:08 pm

It’s not at all a good analogy. Douthat expressly and repeatedly concedes Hitchens’ atheism, including in one good anecdote that is pointedly snipped out with an ellipsis in the quotation provided here.

9

markg 12.19.11 at 9:15 pm

It’s an easy, some might say cowardly, thing to make a point by ascribing beliefs to someone who can no longer speak for him/herself. One can only imagine the verbal thrashing Hitchens would have administered to this twit while he still lived.

10

mollymooly 12.19.11 at 9:18 pm

A Christian may prefer some kinds of atheist to other kinds, just as an atheist may prefer some kinds of Christian to other kinds. In one sense, each side ought to consider everyone on the other side to be equally wrong. In other senses, not.

11

Marshall 12.19.11 at 9:19 pm

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Douthat, but I notice that Hitchen’s book had to do with specific examples of religious people and organizations not implementing their own professed standards, rather than Dawkins-like claims of idiotic non-empiricism. Christopher spoke against leaders and institutions, not the people. He was an atheist because he was a progressive, which the famous Horsemen are not.

12

bert 12.19.11 at 9:22 pm

Expressly and repeatedly concedes Hitchens’ atheism only to conclude that his cheerfulness “suggests that he intuited” the existence of an imaginary friend.
Pertly pious Douthat is way out of line. Hitchens would have told him to fuck off. So should we.

13

Henry 12.19.11 at 9:23 pm

bq. Douthat expressly and repeatedly concedes Hitchens’ atheism

I think we will have to differ on our understanding of what ‘conceding someone’s atheism’ involves.

14

Substance McGravitas 12.19.11 at 9:26 pm

Douthat quotes Hitchens:

“Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.”

Christopher Hitchens would never change his mind!

Can you blame the hopeful theist?

15

Raghav 12.19.11 at 9:52 pm

I think we will have to differ on our understanding of what ‘conceding someone’s atheism’ involves.

Apparently. Because after describing those Christians who didn’t concede Hitchens’ atheism, Douthat writes, “In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so.” The last sentence of the article makes it clear that Douthat’s argument is that Hitchens was an atheist, but shared a sensibility with religious people that is inconsistent with atheism.

Honestly, I thought the comments were going to point out that Douthat’s alleged inconsistency isn’t one, instead of playing another round of “misinterpret Ross”.

16

alkali 12.19.11 at 9:54 pm

I think we will have to differ on our understanding of what ‘conceding someone’s atheism’ involves.

Douthat:

“[M]any Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up … In this they were mistaken, but not entirely so. At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried … a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel … This air of rebellion did not make him a believer, but it lent his blasphemies an air of danger and intrigue … His last word on the possibility of conversion was at once characteristically dismissive and characteristically protective of his hard-earned reputation as an Enemy of God”

Also, the headline reads “The Believers’ Atheist” (probably not Douthat, but still).

I don’t share most of Douthat’s religious and political positions but I do feel sometimes as if Douthat is picked on by the lefty blogs because there is a sense that deep down he is persuadable — or at least vulnerable to criticism — in a way that, say, Ann Coulter or Jennifer Rubin is not. (Which is not unlike the claim made here by Douthat about Hitchens, I suppose.)

17

tomslee 12.19.11 at 9:57 pm

rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade”

I’d argue with this, but somehow it doesn’t seem worth it. I’ll go home and get half-drunk instead.

18

bert 12.19.11 at 9:59 pm

Enjoying life is inconsistent with atheism.
That’s the central claim.
I think we’re interpreting him just fine. Smug and subrational.

19

Delicious Pundit 12.19.11 at 10:15 pm

rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor

And here I thought that was Ecclesiastes.

In my own Catholic household we were taught to reverence people like Archbishop Romero, not English drunks. I mean, we did reverence English drunks, but not under the rubric of apologetics.

20

CJColucci 12.19.11 at 10:18 pm

The great injustice is that if Hitchens is wrong, he’ll find out in a hurry; if Douthat is wrong, he’ll never know. I guess afterlife is unfair, too.

21

Henry 12.19.11 at 10:20 pm

Alkali – if I wrote an encomium to a recently deceased Catholic crusader against atheism, admitting a few times that yes he was a Catholic, but suggesting that his advocacy of Catholicism was mostly a romantic exercise in fighting a grand fight against a philosophy that he secretly was attracted to, that in reality he was far too intellectually rigorous to really be a victim of the ‘wasting shadow’ of authoritarian religion, and that he likely intuited the real truth and so on, I don’t think that it would be treated as a column that showed genuine respect to this imaginary Catholic or his beliefs. Indeed, I rather imagine that it would be construed as offensive.

22

Uncle Kvetch 12.19.11 at 10:34 pm

rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor

Substance @ 6: “I am feeling awfully empowered right now.”

Since the beginning of time, atheists have yearned to destroy the sun.

23

L2P 12.19.11 at 10:46 pm

“At the very least, Hitchens’s antireligious writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of atheism’s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a disbeliever as a rebel, and that his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find…”

“At the very least, [Pope John Paul]‘s [religious] writings carried a whiff of something absent in many of [Catholicism]‘s less talented apostles — a hint that he was not so much a [true] believer as a rebel, and that his [Catholicism] was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest [Opponent] he could find…”

I think Douthat would be apoplectic if somebody wrote something challenging the John Paul’s bona fide’s like that, don’t you?

24

chris y 12.19.11 at 11:02 pm

The great injustice is that if Hitchens is wrong, he’ll find out in a hurry

If Hitchens is wrong and Ross (Space age couple, why don’t you just) Douthat is right, neither of them will in fact find out until the end of time, when the dead are raised. Common mistake.

25

alkali 12.19.11 at 11:06 pm

[I]f I wrote an encomium to a recently deceased Catholic crusader against atheism … suggesting that his advocacy of Catholicism was mostly a romantic exercise in fighting a grand fight against a philosophy that he secretly was attracted to … I don’t think that it would be treated as a column that showed genuine respect to this imaginary Catholic or his beliefs. Indeed, I rather imagine that it would be construed as offensive.

1) Stating that someone else would probably claim to be offended by a similar argument under different circumstances is not the same as demonstrating that the argument is actually offensive or disrespectful. (Indeed, I think you’d be well within your rights to write that hypothetical essay, and if Douthat called your hypothetical essay offensive and disrespectful, well then boo on him.)

2) Suppose — and I realize this is hypothetical in the extreme — that Hitchens had written about an extremely prominent Catholic figure and argued that notwithstanding her professed convictions, she actually was quite corrupt, venal, and nasty? I guess I must concede that such a thing could never happen, because Hitchens would have recognized it as offensive and disrespectful.

26

Salient 12.19.11 at 11:06 pm

rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor

Since the beginning of time, atheists have yearned to destroy the sun.

No. Douthat is specifically referring to our plans to put solar panels on your roofs.

27

bianca steele 12.19.11 at 11:07 pm

I rather imagine that it would be construed as offensive.

Well, it’s possible to get people of other faiths conditioned so they find it flattering (even to take one’s theological shibboleths as their own). Of course it is presumably flattering, in some sense, assuming the person being flattered has the usual degree of base-level respect for others. But it does seem like it might be less flattering, the more seriously one takes one’s religious–or anti-religious–beliefs. One thing, as the center of gravity of public religion shifts from Catholicism to Evangelicalism, it will probably change. At least it might begin to happen in a different way: based on taking the right moral positions rather than being eloquent or intellectually rigorous.

Re. Hume: the sketchily documented deathbed conversions are too numerous to count. William Shakespeare, even Oscar Wilde.

28

Rich Puchalsky 12.19.11 at 11:14 pm

If Heaven exists, I fully expect that Hitchens is there, writing a screed about how those in Hell have to be tortured for eternity because they are just so evil.

29

Henry 12.19.11 at 11:30 pm

bq. 1) Stating that someone else would probably claim to be offended by a similar argument under different circumstances is not the same as demonstrating that the argument is actually offensive or disrespectful. (Indeed, I think you’d be well within your rights to write that hypothetical essay, and if Douthat called your hypothetical essay offensive and disrespectful, well then boo on him.)

You are failing to see the point, which I would have thought was a reasonably clear one. It is that if someone spends their life arguing _x_, and then someone writes an obituary claiming (without any evidence) that they really, secretly were guided by the intuition _not-x_, then it is hard to construe that obituary as having been respectful of their beliefs, since it effectively resurrects the person as an advocate for views which they actually didn’t subscribe to.

bq. 2) Suppose—and I realize this is hypothetical in the extreme—that Hitchens had written about an extremely prominent Catholic figure and argued that notwithstanding her professed convictions, she actually was quite corrupt, venal, and nasty? I guess I must concede that such a thing could never happen, because Hitchens would have recognized it as offensive and disrespectful.

I am not sure what the point is here. That Christopher Hitchens was disrespectful to Mother Teresa? I don’t think that this is in doubt. But that is hardly the issue under debate. I am happy to stipulate that Christopher Hitchens was a complete arsehole, not least because I believe it to be true. But the actual question is not whether Douthat is meaner than Hitchens, or vice versa, but of whether it is intellectually kosher to resurrect dead people as secret adherents of views that they vigorously opposed, to the best of their ability, while they were alive. As it happens, the Mother Teresa example is complicated by her long dark night of the soul thing, but if there is any similar evidence in re: Hitchens – that he secretly wrote of his longing for Christ while publicly rubbishing the church and all its works – Douthat has not produced it.

30

Ben Alpers 12.19.11 at 11:40 pm

I would have imagined that Leo Strauss would be the “Believers’ Atheist” (for Douthat-like values of belief). He certainly had many more nice things to say about religious belief than Hitchens ever did.

31

Henry 12.19.11 at 11:45 pm

bq. Hitchens always argued from desperate faith. That’s what Douthat recognizes. Desperation seeks redemption.

I really don’t think that this is true, as is demonstrable through even a casual reading of the guy. He argued from smugness, not desperation (he wasn’t imo a particularly _good_ advocate for atheism, nor student of religion, but again, that is not the point).

32

Raghav 12.19.11 at 11:55 pm

You are failing to see the point, which I would have thought was a reasonably clear one. It is that if someone spends their life arguing x, and then someone writes an obituary claiming (without any evidence) that they really, secretly were guided by the intuition not-x, then it is hard to construe that obituary as having been respectful of their beliefs, since it effectively resurrects the person as an advocate for views which they actually didn’t subscribe to.

But Douthat never claimed that Hitchens intuited God’s existence. That section of his article is actually fairly clear:

Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.

My hope — for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead — is that now he finally knows why.

What Hitchens is supposed to have intuited is that Larkin should not have given in to despair. But Douthat’s whole point is that Hitchens’s atheism is inconsistent with his imperviousness to existential angst. The argument is of the following form:

(1) Hitchens believed A and Q.
(2) But Q entails ~A.
(3) I hope Hitchens now knows ~A and therefore knows why Q.

(2) seems wrong to me, but it would at least be an interesting discussion.

33

alkali 12.19.11 at 11:55 pm

You are failing to see the point, which I would have thought was a reasonably clear one.

I’m actually quite sure that I do see the argument you are making, though I don’t happen to agree with it.

It is that if someone spends their life arguing x, and then someone writes an obituary claiming (without any evidence) that they really, secretly were guided by the intuition not-x, then it is hard to construe that obituary as having been respectful of their beliefs, since it effectively resurrects the person as an advocate for views which they actually didn’t subscribe to.

I can see a couple of reasons why one would not want to write that kind of obituary. First, it is unsporting to withhold an argument against someone’s position until that someone is dead. That is not something Douthat did; he debated Hitchens face-to-face in public during Hitchens’ lifetime. Second, it is unsporting to assert that someone is lying about their deeply-held beliefs without specific evidence, particularly if they are no longer alive to rebut that claim. That is not what Douthat is doing here; he repeatedly and explicitly disavows any claim that Hitchens’ consciously-held beliefs were other than what Hitchens claimed them to be. To be sure, Douthat is claiming that on some level Hitchens must have had some sympathy for Douthat’s position, but one can make that kind of claim without imputing intellectual dishonesty. As such, I don’t see why anyone should be genuinely offended by Douthat’s column, even if they disagree with Douthat’s argument.

I am not sure what the point is here. That Christopher Hitchens was disrespectful to Mother Teresa? I don’t think that this is in doubt. But that is hardly the issue under debate.

You seem to have invoked the principle “People should not make disrespectful arguments about another person’s religious views,” which is odd in a discussion of Hitchens.

34

Raghav 12.19.11 at 11:59 pm

Well, I messed up the blockquote (it should extend two sentences further), but this gives me a chance to clarify my clumsy wording up in comment 15. When I wrote “Douthat’s alleged inconsistency,” I meant Douthat’s claim that Hitchens’s worldview is inconsistent, not that Douthat himself was inconsistent.

35

nick s 12.20.11 at 12:02 am

Boswell had dreams about David Hume having a deathbed conversion; after Hume’s funeral, he spent a good few days getting drunk and having sex with prostitutes. Not that Hitchens was fit to polish Hume’s backgammon set, but if you see Douthat wandering around DC in the small hours…

My main problem with this piece is its premise that atheism demands an orthodoxy, when it’s clear that non-belief is, um, a broad church — for instance, encompassing differing views on the social function of ritual and myth regardless of their theological underpinnings. Historically, non-belief has been the junior partner to belief, and believers have been happy to divide atheists up into the clubbable and the combustible.

I do feel sometimes as if Douthat is picked on by the lefty blogs because there is a sense that deep down he is persuadable

I think it’s mainly due to the phrase “chunky Reese Witherspoon”.

36

Kenny Easwaran 12.20.11 at 12:09 am

Marshall at 11: I notice that Hitchen’s book had to do with specific examples of religious people and organizations not implementing their own professed standards, rather than Dawkins-like claims of idiotic non-empiricism. Christopher spoke against leaders and institutions, not the people. He was an atheist because he was a progressive, which the famous Horsemen are not.

That sounds strange to me – not living up to one’s own professed standards is only a personal tragedy, while ignoring all empirical evidence is an objective tragedy. And it seems stranger still to call Hitchens a progressive, regardless of his one-time Trotskyism. Also, isn’t Hitchens one of the four horsemen? I thought it was Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Dennett and Dawkins always struck me as more progressive than Harris and Hitchens, but I may be wrong.

37

bert 12.20.11 at 12:11 am

Henry’s right about the insidious, sideways nature of Douthat’s attempt to annexe a recent corpse. I’d only add that there’s another bit of rotten reasoning in his piece. It’s the notion that one can only engage fully in life – with moral commitment as well as cheerfulness – if one accepts the claims of religion.
I for one couldn’t begin to respect someone who thought that claim was justified.

38

bert 12.20.11 at 12:12 am

Raghav, I note says “(2) seems wrong to me”.
Which doesn’t sound too far away, at least on this point.

39

Malaclypse 12.20.11 at 12:13 am

To be fair to Douthat, this is less offensive than when he writes about sex.

40

Antonio Conselheiro 12.20.11 at 12:19 am

Hitchens does remind me of a certain kind of nasty, witty, Christian Conservative: Waugh, Belloc, Chesterton, William Golding, Anthony Burgess.

41

nick s 12.20.11 at 12:27 am

Or Kingsley Amis, who, according to Martin, was asked if he was an atheist, and replied “Well, yes, but it’s more that I hate him”?

42

Nine 12.20.11 at 12:50 am

“Hitchens does remind me of a certain kind of nasty, witty, Christian Conservative: Waugh, Belloc, Chesterton, William Golding, Anthony Burgess”

Anthony Burgess was a Christian Con, really ? His books, the ones i’ve read, didn’t suggest it in the slightest. In fact, “The Kingdom of the Wicked”, seemed concieved in hostility to, or at least to troll, the the official version of the Christian origin story.

43

David Littleboy 12.20.11 at 12:53 am

“he wasn’t imo a particularly good advocate for atheism,”
Good advocates for atheism are in rather short supply, sigh. We’re too easily p!ssed off by the sick smug schmarminess of the believers, I guess.

44

garymar 12.20.11 at 12:56 am

Hitchens does remind me of a certain kind of nasty, witty, Christian Conservative.

Yes, this exactly! A special English combination of talent and spleen.

45

John Quiggin 12.20.11 at 1:33 am

@Antonio – What Orwell used to call “silly clever”

46

Raghav 12.20.11 at 1:35 am

Yeah, I thought Golding was neither Christian nor conservative, and Burgess was a secular reactionary. Waugh, Belloc, and Chesterton definitely fit the bill, though.

47

tomslee 12.20.11 at 1:51 am

My recollection is that Earthly Powers had strong autobiographical roots in Burgess’s lapsed Catholicism. (I guess I could use Google to check, but the universe is going to end in heat death either way).

48

G. McThornbody 12.20.11 at 1:56 am

I was hoping BW’s earlier post was the last of the Hitch mentions, but nooo! The only reason Douthat even has an article is because it was an easy cop out essay on a weekly pop-topic. Why too, would anyone read Douthat? He’s only interesting in one of 10 essays, and worse, he’s never ever fun.

As far as Hitch goes… People like believing in things. It would be nice if such beliefs are harmless, but after his notoriety, I’d be more inclined to listen to him if his opinion on religion was “I don’t care,” and his opinion on Iraq was “bad idea.” To me, Hitch was a riffraff personality that used his contrariness as a road to popularity.

Douthat, on the other hand, is the bland white hope with regurgitated ideas that keeps old opinionated conservatives still reading the grey lady. Well, him and Brooks.

In summation, I particularly abhor Douthat’s summation: “My hope — for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead — is that now he finally knows why.” That deserves at least a face full of pepper-spray or at least a kick in the shins.

grismcthorn

49

Tom Hurka 12.20.11 at 2:02 am

Hitchens was a very good reader of Larkin, Douthat not.

“Death is no different whined at than withstood” isn’t literally the “conclusion” of “Aubade” (as Douthat calls it) because there’s another stanza to come. Nor is it thematically the conclusion; it’s just a little coda. It assumes the poem’s main idea, that death’s “total emptiness” is a horrible and inescapable evil, and adds that being brave about it doesn’t make it any less evil than being cowardly. Just a minor variation on a theme already stated.

Larkin’s long-standing horror of death was very idiosyncratic, and the idea that it’s what rigorous atheism “ineluctably” leads to is just silly.

50

Antonio Conselheiro 12.20.11 at 2:03 am

Golding and Burroughs may have had the Original Sin without the Christianity. If everyone is a sinner, there are no innocent victims.

51

Leinad 12.20.11 at 2:12 am

Hey, at least he isn’t claiming that Hitchens recanted on his deathbed. Progress!

52

bert 12.20.11 at 2:27 am

Did you see Ian McEwan in the Guardian, Tom?
He describes an argument about the last lines of the Whitsun Weddings.
Hitchens took a dark view, McEwan disagreed.
I’d always thought of it McEwan’s way, but I didn’t mind being made to notice it’s open to both readings.

53

LFC 12.20.11 at 2:28 am

I had one extremely brief encounter with Hitchens at a political event in the ’80s (or maybe it was the early ’90s, I can’t recall exactly). I complimented him on a recent piece in The Nation in which he had savaged Martin Peretz about something or other (probably something Peretz had written on the Middle East, but I don’t remember the details). Hitchens’s reply, which I took as self-deprecation: “Mere vulgar abuse.” That was the extent of our conversation, but on the basis of that I cannot regard him as “a complete arsehole” (Henry’s phrase), though I had no time for his repulsive opinions post-9/11.

As for Douthat’s column (which I first became aware of when Andrew Gelman linked to it), it’s a piece of rubbish, primarily for the reason given by bert and Raghav. Though I also can see Henry’s point on it.

54

Antonio Conselheiro 12.20.11 at 2:55 am

Burgess not Burroughs.

55

Aulus Gellius 12.20.11 at 3:52 am

Surely Douthat concedes Hitchens’ unbelief in precisely the same way the Spiritualists conceded Houdini’s, no? As far as I know (and as far as the quoted passage in the post reveals) no one claimed that Houdini believed in spirits all along, or saw one on his deathbed.
The point about both arguments is that they are a way of seizing someone’s authority for your side of an argument without that person’s permission. This is irritating enough when it is done to the living (“you protest, but in your heart you know I’m right”). But at least the living have the chance to explicitly reject whatever hidden beliefs are being ascribed to them.* The dead lack that chance.

*Imagine that there has been some mistake, and it turns out Hitchens is still alive and well after all. Is there any doubt whatsoever that he will shortly write an angry response to Douthat, insisting that he has nothing like this supposed intuition? But there is very little chance of that; and when there was a real chance, Douthat was not (AFAIK) making the claim.

56

Brad DeLong 12.20.11 at 4:17 am

Re: “Ben Alpers 12.19.11 at 11:40 pm: I would have imagined that Leo Strauss would be the “Believers’ Atheist” (for Douthat-like values of belief). He certainly had many more nice things to say about religious belief than Hitchens ever did.”

I think that is wrong–I think Leo Strauss had nastier things to say about religion than Hitchens ever did: “From the point of view of Aristotle–and who could claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?–the issue between the mechanical and teleological conceptions of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved…”

57

Merp 12.20.11 at 4:45 am

Hitchens was fond of referencing the full context of the famous Marx quote about religion being the “opiate of the masses”:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation but so that he will shake off the chain and cull the living flower.

Douthat’s full of shit.

58

Alan 12.20.11 at 5:43 am

Has anyone on this thread actually nursed a loved one painfully through the losses of extended disease to the point of death? I know as a lapsed evangelical that we can believe all that koine Greek NT nonsense of (e.g.) 1 common miracle among 39 between 4 so-called biographies of Christ–yeah I translated John and know he’s the flier–but what is that against seeing someone– a father– lose his mind, poisoned by toxins of failing kidneys, slowly receding from humanity into a gasping creature who you give CPR in his final minutes and who has not recognized you for weeks? The slip from being human to being completely and irreversibly dead is all too obvious to anyone who has cared for someone dying with perceptible and trackable loss of personality. Faith can try to compensate for that as a kind of abstract comfort. But it is unbearably cold compared to the warmth of reason. I for one will not let any inflated self-interested fact of my mortality dominate a meaningful self-created and rational hope for the small space of my life often derided as a result of mere chance, but amply supported by Sober, Kitcher, et al as making real sense. Hitchens is dead; long live the meme.

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Meredith 12.20.11 at 6:56 am

OT the post (though not all the comments), I guess (and apologize), but I long to hear and talk about Havel, not Hitchens, or Douthat on Hitchens.

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Lee A. Arnold 12.20.11 at 6:56 am

As an agnostic I never get involved in the regular argument between atheists and believers, I think it is a waste of time, but I am convinced, to quote Wittgenstein, that “consciousness of sin is a real event, and so is despair and salvation through faith, and those who speak of such things are merely reporting what has happened to them, no matter what gloss anyone else may wish to put a upon it.” Consequently I find both atheists and believers, particularly of the likes of Hitchens and Douthat, to be presumptuous and a little offensive. Atheists presumably would find psychoanalysis to be a more acceptable path to overcome desolation and despair although it is a framework, or series of frameworks, of extended metaphors and occasional gibberish that sometimes gets thrown out (e.g. Freudianism?) and now has gone on to prescribe psych meds all over the place without a clear handle on the final outcomes. How is this different from religion? Because you don’t believe in an afterlife? On the other hand believers insist on taking the “consciousness of sin that becomes hell to the miser or murderer” (to mash Douthat’s words together), –an event which is in THIS life,– and linking it to an awards theory of an afterlife, administered by a larger being outside of you. I understand that change in consciousness requires strenuous application, a big idea that can shake up the thoughts, but this is a useless misdirection that can be very damaging, (not to mention leading to the Pecksniffian sentiments). I can imagine that there is an afterlife without a god: your consciousness just dissolves back into the quantum foam from which the particles come, and there is no individuality and no time. I can imagine that there might be a god as a Leibnitzian monad, due to something like Kurt Gödel’s interesting late convictions on theism. But I don’t imagine that either Hitchens or Douthat will be useful on the subject.

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Ben Alpers 12.20.11 at 8:02 am

@Brad DeLong (straying far OT at this point):

I said that Strauss had nicer things to say about religion than Hitchens ever did. I wouldn’t deny that he also had nastier things to say about it (though that passage you quote from Natural Right and History is hardly an endorsement of any of the modern alternatives it discusses).

And whatever Strauss may ultimately have thought of religion, I think it’s fair to say that Strauss (and the various strains of Straussianism) have a far more positive view of the social function (or at least the potential social function) of religion than Hitchens or any of the other “New Atheists” do.

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garymar 12.20.11 at 8:11 am

I’m pretty sure that soon before his death Hitchens must have realized, deep down, in spite of himself, that true comfort in this veil of tears comes only from the worship of Ganesh, the elephant god.

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Hidari 12.20.11 at 10:04 am

‘ Dennett and Dawkins always struck me as more progressive than Harris and Hitchens, but I may be wrong.’

Dawkins is not in the slightest bit progressive, at least in the last 4 or 5 years.

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Alex 12.20.11 at 11:12 am

certain kind of nasty, witty, Christian Conservative: Waugh, Belloc, Chesterton, William Golding, Anthony Burgess

This is a very, very good point.

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tomslee 12.20.11 at 12:23 pm

Lee Arnold: I find both atheists and believers… to be presumptuous and a little offensive.

I’ve heard this before and, as a Larkin-style atheist myself I find it very strange. It’s not like I’m happy to be an atheist, or feel smug about my superior insight into the nature of the universe. On the contrary, my take on death is to be constantly looking for some kind of an escape. That there is none to be had (yet!) is a matter for 4am panics, not presumption.

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bert 12.20.11 at 1:05 pm

What’s more, Lee, you appear to be attempting to recruit Wittgenstein, after his death, as a continental relativist.
If I were you I wouldn’t Douthat.

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Chiron 12.20.11 at 1:09 pm

Nice to see the late, great Sladek quoted.
Christopher who?

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Uncle Kvetch 12.20.11 at 3:03 pm

Douthat recognizes something in Hitchens.

Yes: he recognizes passion. And there’s no place for passion in Douthat’s cartoon conception of atheism. Atheists are supposed to be these arid, Spock-like creatures driven only by their fanatical adherence to reason, logic and science. But Hitchens was colorful, flamboyant, larger-than-life. So he can’t possibly have been a real atheist.

This is, of course, unmitigated horsesh*t, but it’s a fairly widespread belief — it’s another one of those comforting fictions that certain insecure believers draw on for reassurance. For Douthat to trot it out just demonstrates that his Catholic faith is about as sturdy and intellectually grounded as that of a 12-year-old. For him to use another person’s death as an opportunity to do so just demonstrates that he’s a consummate asshole.

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bert 12.20.11 at 4:29 pm

The Blair/Hitchens thing was about religion, and was pretty much a nonevent. If it had a highlight it was Blair, on being asked for an example of religion having a positive political effect, suggesting Northern Ireland.
_________________

Here’s Larkin, atheist as ever, at his least gloomy:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXf-gq65GO0

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Lee A. Arnold 12.20.11 at 5:20 pm

Tomslee @69 — Sorry, I did not intend to write it to mean ALL all atheists and believers, some of whom are my best friends, I just don’t like the proselytisers on either side. I have had 4am panics.

Bert @70 — Did Wittgenstein believe that Christianity is the one true religion, but that glosses on its language-game run far beyond the real event it may produce, or did he think that the real event (i.e. inner change or transformation) might be produced by entirely different beliefs and different language games?

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bert 12.20.11 at 5:45 pm

Lee, I don’t regard agnosticism as a comfortable middle ground between atheism and belief. But I’m sure that in reducing your position to a setup and a punchline I distorted it beyond recognition, sorry about that.
I like your observation about psychoanalysis. It’s no coincidence that the Scientologists, as they trawl Beverly Hills for the vulnerable rich, are very clear that it’s the Pepsi to their Coke.

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politicalfootball 12.20.11 at 6:48 pm

I am surprised at the insistence that Hitchens would have been offended by Douthat’s piece. Hitchens would have disagreed with it, of course, as Douthat acknowledges, but Douthat didn’t say anything that he wouldn’t or couldn’t have said in Hitchens’ presence, or while Hitchens was alive. In fact, I’d be a little surprised if Douthat had never done so.

By Douthat’s lights, the piece was complimentary. Hitchens, per Douthat, was too astute to fail to understand the truth on some level. I suspect Hitchens would have accepted this as a compliment, just as he was gracious about efforts to pray for him:

An Associated Press reporter who saw Hitchens, thin and frail that month, reported that he was gracious about the prayers, calling the efforts “nice'” but fruitless as he rebuffed the idea of heaven.

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LFC 12.20.11 at 8:08 pm

garymar @66

LOL

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ovaut 12.20.11 at 8:40 pm

douthat is pretty much *explicitly* saying here that he believes in religion because he’s terrified of death

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Antonio Conselheiro 12.21.11 at 12:44 am

That’s what converted the Anglo-Saxons, a cheerier view of the afterlife.

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Jack Strocchi 12.21.11 at 8:12 am

comment by banned commenter deleted

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tomslee 12.22.11 at 2:34 am

Lee @76: Clarification accepted, and agreed about proselytisers.

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Jeffrey Davis 12.24.11 at 5:36 pm

Belief in God is irrelevant. Anything that hides so well doesn’t want to be found. Which is fine by me: I didn’t ask to play in the first place.

Mostly, appeals to divinity are just attempts by the lazy or weak to win an argument they can’t win by other means. Beliefs that come from a book have led to blood so often you’d think we’d learn. But … noooooooo.

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