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Why the New Atheists are SO 19th Century

Seminary student Be Scofield challenges Chris Hitchens to debate some theologically current religious progressives. Cross posted from Tikkun Daily.

by Be Scofield

UN:F [1.7.9_1023]
Despite having engaged in numerous debates with Christians, Muslims and Jews across the liberal/conservative spectrum Christopher Hitchens still holds to an amazingly ignorant understanding of the liberal religious heritage. His understanding of who is and who isn’t a Christian is perhaps the most disappointing and surprising piece of evidence for his myopic interpretation of religion. While rejecting conservative Christians’ theological claims about God, the Bible and Jesus, he accepts their understanding of who is and is not able to be considered a Christian. In a recent interview with Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian Universalist minister and self-professed liberal Christian, Christopher Hitchens paraphrased C.S. Lewis to explain the boundaries of who constitutes a Christian. It’s not surprising then that a recent blog post by Dr. Ray Pritchard of “Keep Believing Ministries” for a conservative Christian site called Crosswalk was entitled, “Christopher Hitchens Gets it Exactly Right.”
During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, noted atheist Christopher Hitchens laid down some seriously good theology… In one of the delicious ironies of our time, an outspoken atheist grasps the central tenet of Christianity better than many Christians do. What you believe about Jesus Christ really does make a difference.
What did Hitchens say?
Sewell:The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion? Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Why is Hitchens so quick to accept such an orthodox interpretation of the boundaries of Christianity? His brain seems to short-circuit when he has to think about religion in complex ways. He wants to hold firmly to an either/or dichotomy–the very same one which he is critiquing fundamentalism for. In debates he has stated that he is “Protestant atheist” meaning that he recognizes the validity of the various reformation movements which liberalized, expanded and diversified Christianity. But which denomination of protestant atheist is he? This isn’t clear but it is apparently not one which falls outside of his or C.S. Lewis’s orthodox boundaries of inclusion/exclusion. Isn’t it shocking that of all people Christopher Hitchens is in agreement with the many forces in history which have led to the extermination, torture and destruction of “heretics” for simply believing the “wrong” form of Christianity? Since when is Hitchens so concerned about who is and isn’t a Christian? Any first-year seminary student could tell Hitchens about the incredibly contested history of inclusion/exclusion within Christianity. These debates go back to the early days of the religious movement and continue to the present day. And many post-reformation denominations have rejected the orthodox claim made by Hitchens. Liberal Christians have articulated their expressions of faith in powerful and meaningful ways while many of them don’t pass Hitchens’ litmus test. One wonders if he has ever read the great American Unitarian, Universalist and liberal reformers, William Ellory Channing, Hosea Ballou, Clarence Skinner or Theodore Parker. Or perhaps the German theologian Frederick Schleiermacher and the English Romanticist Samuel Taylor Coleridge. How about Paul Tillich, Henry Nelson Weiman and other process theologians? The Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller among others? Or the Christian New Thought movement which produced Unity, Religious Science and Church of Divine Science? How about contemporary feminist theologians such as Rebbecca Parker, Rita Nakashima Brock, Rosemary Radford Reuther or Mary Daly? Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong or Elaine Pagels? Liberation theology? I’m leaving so much out but I will lastly mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I recently wrote an article for Tikkun which describes in detail how Dr. King rejected the orthodox divinity of Christ, didn’t believe in heaven/hell, saw the Bible as myth and saw Christianity as a mix of paganism, Judaism and religious cults of the time. And what of the millions of Christians who choose this label but don’t accept the orthodox or fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity? For some reason Hitchens sides with C.S. Lewis and joins the religious forces of exclusion, domination and institutional control. Why would Hitchens take sides on a issue that he is obviously ill-prepared to discuss? Again, the complexity and diversity within liberal Christianity is too much for Hitchens and his either/or way of thinking. Christopher Hedges explains this clearly,
The new atheists, who attack a repugnant version of religion, use it to condemn all religion. They use it to deny the reality and importance of the religious impulse. They are curiously unable to comprehend those who found through their religious convictions the strength to stand up against injustice…The new atheists, like all fundamentalists, flee from complexity. They can cope with religion in its most primitive and abusive form. They are helpless when confronted by a faith that challenges their caricatures. [When Atheism Becomes Religion:America's New Fundamentalists p. 33-34]
Any serious engagement by Hitchens with the liberal Christian tradition would force him to admit that the premise of his thesis is wrong. And this of course cannot happen because Hitchens is as tied to his perspective as Pat Robertson is to his. By signing on to the orthodox version of inclusion/exclusion in Christianity Hitchens makes it more likely that he can protect his narrow-minded fundamentalist interpretation of religion. And aside from the liberal Christian tradition, Hitchens' critique also ridicules and bashes atheists. He very likely does not know that Unitarian Universalism is made up of 19% of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Yet they feel very comfortable expressing themselves in a religious tradition that is based on community, social justice, music and inclusion. In order to discredit any practical function of religion he frequently returns to the question, “Name a moral action that a religious person can make that I can’t.” This is a great question for all of those dogmatic fundamentalists that he debates. But he poses the same question to Marilyn Sewell in the interview. Of course Sewell, myself, and many liberal religious people don’t believe that religion or God is necessary to be moral. But it certainly can inspire people to live a more ethical life. But simply because Hitchens and other agnostics/atheists are capable of the same moral actions this doesn’t mean that religion is irrelevant. And it seems that Hitchens was trying to make this point in his interview with Sewell. Another interesting aspect of the Sewell interview was his admittance of “something beyond our selves” and his discussion of the soul. Via Religion Dispatches:
It’s innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That’s the numinous, and there’s enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required….everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter….It’s what you might call “the x-factor” — I don’t have a satisfactory term for it — it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.
I know many liberal religious people who find great familiarity and agreement in what Hitchens is saying. They agree with him wholeheartedly but yet choose to use religious language to express this. Hitchens’ orthodox Protestant Atheism is hypocritical and his either/or critique of religion is childish. He fails to provide a definition of what religion is. Who does he consider religious? Who decides within each tradition who has the power to include/exclude? How about all of the liberal religious thinkers mentioned above? His thesis “religion poisons everything” sold books but just one example of how religion positively influences the lives of people refutes his entire premise. Needless to say this has been demonstrated time and time again. Religion is merely a tool, like a knife which can be used to save a life in surgery or murder someone. Perhaps one day Hitchens will convert from his Orthodox Protestant Atheism to a more tolerant, inclusive and loving tradition. Open challenge to Christopher Hitchens: Come debate myself and fellow students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. You wouldn’t be afraid of a few young seminary students would you? —————– Hitchens has debated at least three liberal religious thinkers. Chris Hedges author of “When Atheism Becomes Religion” debated Hitchens in San Francisco in 2007. In December of 2009 he appeared on to debate/discuss God with Robert Wright author of “The Evolution of God.” And Marilyn Sewell is the latest. In my opinion these are some of the most interesting debates that Hitchens has engaged in. Click here for a link to over 500 religious debates, including more with Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens: The Orthodox Protestant Atheist4.552
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