Christopher Hitchens and the Meaning of Life
Christopher Hitchens, who was a well-known political iconoclast, provocateur, writer, commentator, and atheist, died on December 15. Death has a sting for us all, but that sting must be greatest for an atheist -- at least for a thinking atheist like Hitchens.
No one can presume to know Hitchens' private thoughts (though Hitchens was quite transparent in his writings). But Hitchens was a family man; he left a wife and children. Leaving loved ones in death isn't a happy prospect for anyone, but it must be a truly forlorn prospect for an atheist, Hitchens not exempted. A critical difference between an atheist and a believer in God is the believer's conviction that physical death isn't the end of life; separation from our loved ones in death isn't forever -- or even for very long (when stacked up against eternity).
Hitchens, an apostle of atheism, spoke and wrote eloquently and persuasively -- as were his gifts -- about the nonexistence of God. Like other smart, articulate atheists (Richard Dawkins, in particular), Hitchens argued with confidence -- even gusto -- that belief in God is baloney. It's curious that atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins claim to know enough about existence to assert that God and the spiritual are fabrications -- myths designed at making sense of an often capricious and frightening world. At least the agnostic permits that he doesn't know enough to know if God exists or if there's a soul that carries on.
For a thinking man like Hitchens, it must have been a dreadful prospect facing the obliteration of consciousness that comes with physical dissolution -- and, so, the dissolution of all ties -- to loved ones, to the sweet and good of life, to the poignant; even to the trials, hardships, and challenges, which shape us. There must be a keen -- even bitter -- sense of futility that an atheist experiences as he approaches death. Perhaps Hitchens faced his doom with stoic acceptance of the inevitable, with a matter-of-fact resignation. But Hitchens was a passionate man; his fervor shone through his work. Atheism was a passion, a mission, for Hitchens; that betrays the sort of man he was. The end of self must have stung terribly for Hitchens.
Atheists' central argument is that there's no proof of God or the spiritual. If science can't prove God, then God is imagination's creation. Believers in God would counter that faith -- acceptance without proof -- is what God wants of us; believers are instructed to believe without seeing.
Belief, however, is what vexes the atheist, who relies heavily on science to draw conclusions. The tangible, the knowable, and the provable are the atheist's touchstones. Isn't the atheist's resolve that existence must be provable belie a conceit? Faith teaches many important things, but one thing is how little human beings know in the face of an immense creation and an infinite God. In fact, one doesn't have to be faithful to appreciate how little human beings really know about creation.
The insufficiency of knowledge about existence certainly doesn't mean there's a God. But permitting that existence is much greater than what is known, or can be known, then God's being cannot be readily dismissed, as atheists often do. Hence, the contention that agnosticism is intellectually more honest than atheism.
Hitchens was typical of many atheists: he was affronted by the notion of God, and affronted by the billions of human beings who profess some sort of spirituality. There was arrogance and intellectual snobbery -- and undisguised hostility -- in Hitchens toward believers, as there seems to be in many atheists. Belief in God is boobery. How could modern minds embrace a fictional God? Isn't the modern human past cave paintings, relics, sacrifices, and icons?
Hitchens once wrote:
We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.
Was Hitchens right, that if people accept life as only a physical phenomenon, with death as the termination of consciousness, that they might behave better toward one another? One can easily draw an opposite conclusion; that with certain termination of consciousness, with the total erasure of the self ad infinitum, then people could act anyway they please, and can easily justify the most self-centered, indecent, and uncharitable behavior toward their fellows.
Once life is stripped of meaning beyond material existence; once its accepted as accidental and random; once life is understood as a "short and struggling" journey of eighty years (if one is very lucky), then anything goes, from compassion toward our fellows to crass exploitation and cruelty. It really doesn't matter. And that's the great weaknesses of the atheist's creed.
Life as a purely material phenomenon is ultimately of little consequence. Nothing brought life into being. Nothing is life's fate and the fate of the universe that contains life. Ultimately, we're accountable for nothing. Many of us live short, brutish, and nasty lives then die, only to dissolve into the constituent particles that make us up. In turn, over time, those particles dissipate. Eventually, the universe itself ends, collapsing in on itself (if the theory is correct). For the atheist, existence is ultimately a nullity.
So, why not act as we please? Caring today, churlish and grasping tomorrow? Why not rob banks -- well, you may get caught, because others have decided that their interests or their personal sense of right and wrong is offended. But if you calculated that the risk was worth the reward, why not rob? Societies are better ordered with rights and laws? There are rules, and then there are exceptions. Let society have its rules; if you can find ways to violate those rules to your benefit, why not?
Atheists in the persons of the mid-20th Century existentialists tried in vain to advance the argument that it was incumbent upon man to invent meaning in a meaningless world. In other words, the existentialists -- notably, Sartre and Camus -- encouraged their fellows to create personal fictions (or collective fictions) to lend reasons to live with meaning. The fiction of religion was to be replaced by secular fictions. What does that say about the deep need for human beings to have meaning? Why do we have that need at all?
No one is going to argue an atheist out of his atheism, certainly not someone as tough-minded and intellectually adroit as Christopher Hitchens. All we can do is bid Hitchens a fond farewell, and for those of us who are believers, pray he rest in peace.