Against the Atheists: Christopher Hitchens’ personal salvation of autonomy

“The offer of certainty, the offer of compete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet…that I can’t know enough, and I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom.


“I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’d urge you to look at those people who tell you at your age that you are dead until you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children: that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice: push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.”


Christopher Hitchens


Mr. Hitchens frequently dismisses any kind of nuance when discussing religion, and seems here to be caricaturizing all Christianity as some kind of ‘born again’ Calvinist group. Sure, the young are full of life, and describing them as dead seems odd. Until, say, you meet a fifteen-year-old with incurable bone cancer, or the mourning mother of a recently deceased twelve-year-old child, or read about children killed by the bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq, so fiercely supported by Mr. Hitchens. In such cases, maybe the theology of baptism really isn’t so far-fetched.


Does the audience recognize the irony of a man commanding them, as a kind of absolute authority, “Think for yourselves?” When people tell you to accept some other authority, well, accept me instead: Push away their poisoned chalice!


But back to the whole problem of assuming that everyone occupies the kind of privileged class and cultural status of Mr. Hitchens: he certainly has had the luxury of working out his own, personal salvation of autonomy. I dare say that the Church has really little to offer someone like that in his present mindset. Mr. Hitchens has enjoyed creating firestorms by writing books claiming that Mother Teresa was a fraud. I wonder, in all honesty, does he really believe that the lepers, the homeless, the rejected, and the desperately ill would have been better served by being spared the ministrations of the Missionaries of Charity in order to have one of his acolytes tell them, “Think for yourself—much more happiness will come to you that way!”—and then being handed back over to the liberating air of Calcutta’s dirt streets? “We are on the margin of a great harvest of knowledge! Keep warm and well fed!”

1 Comment

  • Mary says:

    Father Peter,

    I think these may be Hitchen’s remarks which preceded the text you excerpted:
    “But when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations, and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city — and he accepted his death — he did say, well, if we are lucky, perhaps I’ll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters too. In other words the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on.

    Why is that important, why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But I do know that that’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.”

    While clearly you disagree with him on the effects that religion exerts on the intellectual pursuit of the good, beautiful and true, I would gently suggest that both you and he value the conversation that seeks to shed light on purity, beauty, truth. This is a common meeting ground.

    For all his brio, I don’t think, although I could be wrong, that Hitchens exhorts his readers to think as he does: only, to think–really think– for themselves.