The Sanctimony of the Atheists
The most beautiful religious movie Ive ever seen is the 1947 French film Monsieur Vincent, which dramatizes the later life of St. Vincent de Paul, best known for his organizational genius in ministering to the poor.
It ends with a wise insight. The dying priest, played by the great Pierre Fresnay, tells a young nun always to keep her lovely smile: Unless the poor know we love them, they will never forgive us for helping them.
Excellent advice. Ive known devout but obtuse Christians who have soured their own works of charity by unconsciously humiliating the people they meant to help with scolding or moralism, or by wounding their fragile self-respect. No need to act morally superior to a starving beggar.
Sometimes I think the other side could use a bit of the same counsel. Too often today, the high and holy cause of unbelief is threatened by the smug sanctimony of the atheists.
Consider Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, whose title is perhaps self-explanatory. Religion poisons everything? Everything? Bach and Mozart? Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman?
And what about atheists like Stalin? Hitchens is ready for that one, citing Orwell: A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy. Besides, we may note, Stalin went to a seminary, where maybe he picked some bad thinking habits, which he couldnt shake off when he stopped believing in God. Even bad atheists, it seems, can be chalked up to religion.
Now Hitchens himself, born English and naturalized American, is a learned and eloquent man. (Ive debated him on politics, and I have the scars to prove it.) But when he gets on the subject of religion any and all religion, mind you he turns plain silly. Like so many of his breed, he seems to think he can settle an argument with a combination of British suavity and British snot. After reading him, Im always surer I know whom he hates (or, less often, loves) than what he thinks.
And being erudite, he argues with impressive inductiveness, citing the usual horrors and then some crusades, inquisitions, wars, jihads, Jim Jones, Jimmy Swaggart, 9/11, et cetera, filing them all under the same heading, Religion, as if they were all instigated by the same agency. (And lets not forget the Scopes trial.)
It may seem ironic that Hitchens, a fierce defender of the Iraq war, blames religion for war, when the last two popes have opposed both Iraq wars; but then, he also seems to blame the popes for opposing them. As Huck Finn might put it, and as Hitchens would surely agree, popes is mostly a bad lot.
When you come right down to it, Hitchenss case against religion is a more impersonal form of the old Phil Donahue argument, which may be summarized thus: Mean old nuns whacked my knuckles with a ruler, ergo God does not exist. This is less inductive reasoning than simple free association with a grudge. Religion reminds Christopher Hitchens of a lot of bad memories, even if they are historical rather than autobiographical. That is, they are bad things hes read about, not necessarily experienced himself. Somehow Id expected a more rigorous argument.
Now taking the broad view, I agree that, as a historical matter, a lot of boys, over the centuries, have had their knuckles whacked by a lot of nuns. But, waiving the question whether some of those boys brought it on themselves (especially if religion has an inherent tendency to produce bad boys like Donahue), we still await a demonstration that mean nuns can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount. And here, unless I am mistaken, lies the fatal lacuna in Hitchenss thesis.
And here I return to the practical problem. If you really think belief in God or gods has always caused so much suffering (such as the Trojan War, a quagmire which I, as a Catholic, would have opposed from the start), then it seems to me that you ought to propagate atheism seriously not just out of vanity to show how clever you are, but out of those same humanitarian motives to which you say religion is repugnant, and by which you claim to be driven. No need to humiliate the poor believers, is there?
But Hitchens still believes in Darwin and the Iraq war. Me, I still run with the popes, but I must say I admire his faith.
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