Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens R.I.P.

The recent death of Christopher Hitchens will probably elicit many panegyrics on this virulent atheist who died such a painful death. In my opinion Hitchens was more a "true believer" than an atheist. He was one of the high priests of a new religion that is still in its formative stage. He was as zealous in the promulgation of his cause as any so-called fundamentalist. Evidence of his zeal was shown a couple of years ago when he was invited by Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Connecticut to present his case in its "Open Visions" forum. The debate was discussed in detail in a local newspaper, and prompted me to write the following response.

Thanks to Marcia Miner for her detailed coverage of the recent debate between “New Atheist” Christopher Hitchens, and theologian John Haught at Fairfield University.Hitchens, who received “a rousing welcome” at the Jesuit University, claimed to be a devotee of Socrates. He especially liked the method of inquiry championed by the ancient Greek philosopher who asked his followers to question everything and start by admitting that they know nothing.

Nevertheless, in Miner’s article Hitchen’s himself came across as one of the most opinionated of men. It seems obvious that while asking others to admit their ignorance he speaks with a greater degree of infallibility than any pope. This is only to be expected because the so-called New Atheism is really a new religion based little on science and mainly on belief.

For example, Hitchens argued that in religion could be found “the origin of totalitarianism which happens to be the enemy of human rights.” What is the scientific, political, or sociological evidence for that claim? The three great Totalitarian movements of the 20th century were Nazism in Germany, Communism in Russia, and Communism in China in its most virulent form under Chairman Mao.

None of these movements owed their origin to religion or religious belief. Although born a Catholic, Hitler early rejected his faith and became an atheist who hated Christianity almost as much as he despised Judaism. The founder of Communism in Russia was Nikolai Lenin who also became an atheist after rejecting his Jewish heritage. Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s brutal successor in Russia, also rejected his Russian Orthodox origins to become an atheist. In China, the atheist Chairman Mao had no use for the traditional religions of China.

Indeed, religion had to be ridiculed, attacked, and brutally persecuted in each of these Totalitarian societies as a necessary step toward the attainment of their goals. We all know that over 50,000,000 people died at the hands of these Totalitarian atheists.

So the claim that Hitchens made is not based on science or scientific method. Nevertheless, it is part of the belief system of the “New Atheists.” In saying this I am not equating Hitchens with Hitler, Stalin, or Chairman Mao. That would be unfair. Despite his bitterness and anger he is probably a decent fellow who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Nevertheless, when he criticizes St. Robert Bellarmine for his role in the Galileo case, he engages in a specious and unfair practice. Instead of questioning the myths that have grown up about the Galileo case, he is content to set up a straw man that can be easily knocked over to gain a “rousing reception.”

Cardinal Bellarmine was perhaps the greatest scholar of the early 17th century. Besides his theological and devotional works, he was an avid student and supporter of the new science. When Galileo’s opponents, mainly university professors, initially accused him, Bellarmine was put in charge of the case. Any historian of science knows that Bellarmine did all he could to let Galileo beat the rap. Galileo was let go only with the injunction that until he had definite scientific proof of his hypothesis, he continue to treat it as just a hypothesis, and not as a settled theory. He was specifically required to keep his “science” out of the area of “religion” unless he did have definite proof. Galileo did not have the technological tools needed to “prove” his case, and he knew it. It was only 300 years later that scientists were able to discover the “stellar parallax!”

Nevertheless, Galileo got off with a mere slap on the wrist and was not troubled by any authority for the next 20 years. In the meantime, Bellarmine died and the final trial did not take place until about 20 years after his death.

Even for that famous trial the myths have persisted. Galileo was never tortured. Even after being found guilty he was merely confined to his villa in Florence where he continued to enjoy the favor and support of his Medici patrons. His punishment was merely to recite the seven penitential Psalms, a chore he conveniently passed on to his daughter, a nun living in a nearby convent.

Although most of its students don’t realize it, most of Fairfield University’s halls are named after Jesuit saints like St. Robert Bellarmine. Some like St. Edmund Campion were even martyrs for their faith. Indeed, it was people of faith whose faith built the University in the first place.

Compare the number of colleges and universities in this country built by religion to the number built by atheism. All these institutions were dedicated to the search for truth and saw no conflict between faith and science. Indeed, it is to Fairfield University’s credit that it chose to invite an atheist to its “Open Visions” program. Compare this practice to the innumerable institutions of higher learning in this country where even the idea of “intelligent design” cannot be studied or even mentioned. The moderator should have asked Hitchens about “Climategate” where scientists recently conspired to suppress scientific evidence contrary to their own beliefs.

Hitchens has won fame and fortune ridiculing the cruel god of his childhood. But he still talks like a child when he argues that anyone who would prefer Jesus to Socrates is “intellectually defective.” Why not investigate the teachings of both Jesus and Socrates? What part of “love one another” does Hitchens not understand?

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