Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

As far as men of letters go, the world lost a giant today. Hitchens was one of the most erudite and outspoken public intellectuals of this generation. He was an equal-opportunity offender and whether it was debating the compatibility of Islam and Western Civilization, or the merits of belief in God, Hitchens never held back from an argument.

As a vocal and assertive voice in the modern Atheist tradition, Hitchens asserted that,

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery, beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely; we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness, and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

I must admit, however, that thinkers in this tradition, including Hitchens and Dawkins, have always struck me as a bit too unaccommodating in their atheism. One of their main intellectual faults is the failure to take into account the fact that spirituality is not always a matter of choice, but also a part of our human hard wiring. As one friend put it,

“Some people experience things that other people can’t imagine exist. Sometimes these things are spiritual, and expand a person’s concept of existence. But such experiences can only be experienced, they cannot be explained or imposed on another person.”

Atheists, like all of us, live in an ideologically pluralistic society and must incorporate phenomenon of personal religious experience into a coherent philosophy. Upon the death of such an influential thinker, and with the future of this movement in mind, I’d like to propose the possibility of  an “Atheism 2.0.”

Let’s start by acknowledging the problems with religion. For religion to fulfill it’s purpose–establishing social harmony through proscribing a set of ethics, a moral order,  and a system of punishment and reward–it has to be able to answer certain questions adequately: what are our origins? What is the nature of reality? What is the  moral way to handle the conflict between differing ethical outlooks? In these areas I agree that, given  modern understandings of the universe and our origins, the established view of the “one God as creator and ultimate judge” has  eased to provide many people with satisfactory answers. Seeming trite, simplistic and downright archaic, many people simply do not find lasting meaning in such a metaphysical outlook.

However, religious belief must also be acknowledged as an evolutionary heirloom that has served certain human psychological needs for millennia–the need for order, meaning, punishment and reward, etc. Religion is something we have created, but that doesn’t make it untrue or illusory. Rather, let us re-envision it as, most importantly, a chronicle of the human experience of the past 5,000 years. Certainly, there are things to be gained from such a repository of knowledge and thought. And certainly, we can come to a more harmonious balance between doubt and faith given the fact that we can escape neither.

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