The Atheist’s Mistake

A few weeks ago the highly publicized atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a letter to an annual convention of atheists justifying his position. Hitchens has based his career on being a gadfly, and he’s an articulate, combative one who is widely read and noticed. Along with many others, I wondered how he would respond to the anxiety of his diagnosis of esophageal cancer. He seems to be fighting a losing battle, sadly. Death-bed conversions, which used to be common, aren’t anymore, and Hitchens remains defiant in his beliefs.

Here are some expressions from his letter:

“I have found, as the enemy [death] becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow. . . than it did before.”
“I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion.”
“It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstition.”

The argument being defended here has a long lineage among rationalists and materialists. Since we live in a scientific age, I imagine that stout atheists are driven more than anything by impatience to finish the job. When science is poised to solve every remaining mystery and technology unfolds every new convenience, why should we keep any allegiance to an outworn world view? The key terms that Hitchens uses to describe that world view are familiar in the rhetoric of atheism: superstition, false consolation, “mind-forged manacles of servility,” “stultifying pseudo-science,” and of course, the blandishments of organized religion. Against these inimical forces Hitchens, and many other atheists, amasses the forces for good that are on his side: decency, reason, skepticism, “our innate solidarity,” courage, “sincere resistance to insidious nonsense,” and so on.

Rhetoric is rhetoric, and in a rousing debate no one takes seriously that atheists are founts of decency and morality while sincere believers are all servile and superstitious. Can anyone seriously believe this? By calling all good things non-religious and all bad things religious, atheists have made a serious mistake. But there’s a deeper mistake, I think, which is to set rational materialism on one side and belief in God on the other. The issue isn’t who buys into God and who, on the other hand, is a rational human being. The two categories aren’t separate; they blend quite a lot, as exemplified by the surprising number of scientists who attend church.

By making belief in God their enemy, atheists deprive themselves of what spirituality is really about: a process of inner growth. There are wisdom traditions around the world that do not use the word God (e.g., Buddhism, Vedanta) or advocate religious worship in the conventional sense. Countless people have seen through the faults of organized religion and turned instead to their own spiritual journey. Hitchens and other atheists stand at the door to that journey and slam it shut, assuring all who approach that to seek God, the soul, or higher reality is a fool’s errand. How do they know? It’s not as if they have inquired deeply into the great saints and sages who have successfully traveled such a journey. Hitchens dismisses every spiritual person out of hand, which means that he dismisses William Blake (the source of his phrase, “mind-forged manacles,” which Blake applied to modern industrial life, not religion) in the same breath that he dismisses Bible Belt preachers.

By discounting the whole notion of spiritual awakening, atheists make a claim to false knowledge. They haven’t walked the walk, yet somehow they know, with dead certainty, that Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Confucius, Zoroaster, Saint Paul, Rumi, Kabir, the Prophet Muhammad, Rabindranath Tagore, and countless others aren’t just wrong; they are stupid and blinkered compared to any everyday atheist today. I have my doubts. The atheists I’ve met went through a period of personal disillusion with religion, and on that basis alone they became atheists. Could anything be more subjective for a crowd that decries subjectivity? Could anything be more idiosyncratic for a group that claims to represent universal reason?

Everyone has a right to their opinions, and the kind of courage that Hitchens has exhibited in the “long argument I am currently having with the specter of death” is existentially honorable and touching. But it is equally honorable to be a spiritual seeker, and ironically, there’s a convergence here. Spirituality is existential, too. It asks who we are, why we are here, and what are the highest values by which a person should live. The atheist’s mistake is to hog the moral limelight, declaring that only non-believers own the truth. The truth is a process of discovery, and anyone who blocks the process and denies its validity needs to wake up before denouncing anyone else as stupid or blind.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle