The following entry has been languishing in the queue for years. I just now finished it for what it's worth.
Which is worse, the fundamentalism of a Jerry Falwell or the snarling hatred of religion of a Christopher Hitchens, who, in his anti-Falwell diatribe, shows just how far someone who is a leftist about religion can sink?
Readers of this blog know that I have little patience with fundamentalist forms of religion. But whatever one thinks of Falwell's views, he was a decent human being capable of compassion and forgiveness. (I recall with admiration the kindness and forbearance he displayed when he confronted his tormentor, the pornographer Larry Flynt, on Larry King Live.) Can one say that Hitchens is a decent human being after his unspeakably vicious attack on a dead man while he was still warm? I have in mind the matchbox quotation. In "Faith-Based Fraud," Hitchens wrote:
In the time immediately following the assault by religious fascism
on American civil society in September 2001, he [Falwell] used his
regular indulgence on the airwaves to commit treason. Entirely
exculpating the suicide-murderers, he asserted that their acts were
a divine punishment of the United States.
The problem with Falwell's statement was that he was in no position to know that the 9/11 attacks were divine punishment. What is offensive about such statements is the presumption that one is en rapport with the divine plan, that one has some sort of inside dope as to the deity's designs. In his credulousness and self-confidence, Falwell displayed a lack of respect for God's transcendence and unsearchableness. But this is just part of what is wrong with fundamentalism, which is a kind of theological positivism.
It is also offensive to hear some proclaim in tones of certainty that Hitchens is now no longer an atheist. They know that God exists and persons survive bodily death? They know no such thing, any more than Hitchens knew the opposite. Convictions, no matter how strong, do not amount to knowledge. (Here is a quick little proof. Knowledge entails truth. So if A and B have opposite convictions, and convictions amount to knowledge, then one and the same proposition can be both true and not true, which violates the Law of Non-Contradiction.)
But although Falwell's 9/11 statement can be criticized, he can't be criticized for making it. He had as much right to make that statement as Hitchens had for his cocksure proclamation that no God exists, not to mention his assaults on Mother Teresa and who all else. After all, that was Falwell's view, and it makes sense within his system of beliefs. There was certainly nothing treasonous about Falwell's statement, nor did it "entirely exculpate the suicide-murderers." Perhaps Falwell was a theological compatibilist, one who finds no contradiction in people acting freely in accordance with a divine plan.
So while we should certainly not follow Hitchens' nasty example and trash the dead, we should not go to the other extreme and paper over the foul aspects of Hitchens' personality. And we should also give some thought to the extent to which his viciousness is an upshot of his atheism.
For in the end, the atheist has nothing and can be expected to be bitter. This world is a vanishing quantity and he knows it; and beyond this world, he believes, there is nothing. That is not to say it isn't true. But if you are convinced that it is true, then you must live hopelessly unless you fool yourself with such evasions as living for some pie-in-the-future utopia such as Communists and other 'progressives' believe in, or for some such abstraction as literature.
Nobody will be reading Hitchens in a hundred years. He'll be lucky if he is still read in ten years.
Have you ever heard of Joseph McCabe (1867-1955)? Not until now. But he too was a major free-thinker and anti-religion polemicist in his day. Who reads him now?