Thank God I'm an Agnostic

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“A woman comes up and she says to me: ‘I’m Jewish. I’m not going to accept Jesus as my savior. Am I going to hell?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me . . . I am the way.’ I’m betting my life that He was telling the truth. Now see what I did? I took it off of me, and making me the authority.”

– Pastor Rick Warren

There’s hell to pay if you’re not just like the fundamentalists – be they theists or anti-theists. It’s either hell in the life to come, or apocalypse now – no doubt about it in the fundamentalists’ doubt-free world. They’re dangerous and influential. Warren delivered the invocation at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The president provided a forum and legitimacy to a zealot who damned Jews – and most everyone else – to hell. Would Obama have invited a jihadist condoning eternal torment of Jews and other nonbelievers? Warren’s gospel resonates: He sold 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life.
The gospel, according to militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, resonates with a different clientele: His God is Not Great (an obvious slap at Islam) is also a bestseller. (Full disclosure: I’m envious; these book sales surpass mine.) Hitchens’ intemperate hatred of religion – especially Islam – won friends and influenced people in intellectual and policymaking circles. Post-9/11, he broke with former Leftist allies, and joined his newfound friend Paul Wolfowitz in championing the Iraq War – hell in the here and now.

christopher hitchens speaks for crowd

Credit: Wikimedia

Attacking Warren knocks down a straw man – at least for readers of this blog. I suspect readers find intellectual anti-theists such as Hitchens (and his cohorts such as Dawkins and Harris) more engaging. But let’s briefly give the devil’s enemy his due. Warren denies personal responsibility (“It took it off me”) for condemning those unlike him to hell – the most sadistic invention of the human imagination. Shouldn’t Christians (like the rest of us) take responsibility for their words? The pastor’s moral holiday echoes a familiar refrain: “I’m not responsible for killing those civilians; God made me do it.” What would he say about an earthly father who throws his child into a blast furnace for whatever reason? Warren wouldn’t be to blame, of course; “It took it off me.” No condemnation? Why worship – rather than condemn – a heavenly Father who tortures most of His creation for all eternity? And the pastor should take care about that bet: Perhaps God has a special circle in hell for those who treat Him like a Vegas wager. Like all fundamentalists, Warren has too many answers and too few questions. If only Warren and his unforgiving, sadistic God had a more Christian attitude!
Turning to Hitchens’ fundamentalism: What’s good isn’t new; and what’s new isn’t good. It’s good to revive old time iconoclasm. It’s good to indict the religious wars, witch-hunts, and inquisitions that plagued the world. (Although a more penetrating, nuanced analysis reveals that religion was often a pretext for personal and political ambitions.) Surely the injunctions in Leviticus would embarrass the Taliban. And maybe Freud was right: Religious ritual is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In any case, Hitchens gets it right when he quips that the fundamentalists’ deity sounds like a cosmic dictator of North Korea ready to punish the slightest infraction.
Unfortunately, anti-theists never tire of raising a hackneyed argument. Do you believe a teacup orbits Mars? Do you believe in the gods of Mount Olympus? It’s not impossible, but a reasonable person rejects improbable nonsense. So why not reject nonsense about an invisible deity? The time is long overdue for atheists to acknowledge the truth that we can’t know the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said it best as he expressed the agnostic credo: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
What’s new isn’t good. Not lauded for his humility, Hitchens doesn’t stand in awe of the mysteries of our conscious existence. No questions remain. However, unlike the atheists of old, his concerns are not impurely philosophical. He’s not merely interested in correcting private metaphysical errors. He’s convinced that religion, not money, is the root of all evil. Dogmatic as any evangelical fundamentalist, Hitchens blithely dismisses counterexamples: His claims won’t admit to disproof. More disturbing and ironic is that his antipathy toward religion prompts him (and other militant atheists) to promote hell on earth, namely the Iraq War and the War on Terror.
Consider his dismissive responses to critics: Didn’t secularists such as Hitler and Stalin commit atrocities surpassing the worst religious wars? He claims Hitler was really a closet Catholic, and in any event, the worst excesses of Catholicism were entwined in Teutonic culture. Likewise, we’re reminded of Stalin’s early days at an Orthodox Russian seminary. Despite these counterarguments, what about the courageous deeds of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.? King didn’t realize it, but he was a closet humanist.
Hitchens’ anti-theism provides a cautionary tale about the evil visited by secular regimes. Consider the ratio: How many civilians have perished due to decidedly secular nationalism coupled with personal ambition (to which the latter-day Hitchens turned a blind eye). Compare these numbers to the lives taken by jihadists. How much does it exaggerate to suggest a ratio of 1,000,000/1? We know this: Hitchens’ intemperate indictment of religion – especially his Islamophobia – inspired jingoism leading to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. 9/11 was his epiphany. In the world according to Hitchens, 9/11 unmasked Islam as the apotheosis of evil.
His former allies on the Left heard him speak in tongues as he celebrated America as the last, greatest hope of mankind, lionized Bush and the neo-cons, and zealously supported the Iraq War. Blinded by anything that smacked of Islam, he conflated Hussein, a secular tyrant, with the tyrant’s mortal enemy, jihadist bin Laden. (As Richard Clarke, Bush’s principal counterterrorism advisor wrote, attacking Iraq after 9/11 made as much sense as attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbor.) As if to illustrate his immunity to facts, in 2008, deep into the quagmire, he wrote “How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I didn’t.” According to Hitchens, the war deposed a dictator that sponsored international terrorism – those elusive weapons of mass destruction would soon be found. Best of all, the war killed Muslims. Glenn Greenwald cites a representative example of Hitchens’ celebration of Muslim deaths:
Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was wearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.”
Both Hitchens’ earthly life and the Iraq War officially ended on December 15, 2011. Whether Hitchens continues to exist in another realm I do not know: Agnostics pray that atheists are wrong. I do know that – contrary to his cavalier predictions – the war Hitchens championed did not end triumphantly; it’s become a never-ending-story.