Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?

Not long ago, Christopher Hitchens—pugilistic author of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—sat down for an interview with retired Unitarian minister (and self-professed “liberal Christian”) Marilyn Sewell. It wasn’t the usual sort of conversation that Hitchens has with “believers,” since his preferred sparring partners tend to be religious conservatives and apologists for fundamentalism (such as Douglas Wilson).

Not surprisingly, early in the interview Hitchens was quick to announce who was a real Christian and who wasn’t, and to insinuate that Sewell fell into the latter camp; a comment that has inspired more than a few raised eyebrows among religious progressives.

But it’s easy to let Hitchens’ arrogance on this matter obscure some broader themes—and some surprising concessions on Hitchens’ part—that emerged in the course of the interview.

One of these themes has to do with just how much Hitchens and Sewell have in common. They agree that nonbelievers are just as capable as believers of acting morally. They agree that much wickedness has been done in the name of God. They share an aversion to claims at odds with science and reason. But what struck me the most as I read the interview was that they even shared an appreciation for “the transcendent” and “the numinous”: terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation.

It wasn’t simply Hitchens’ invocation of these terms that caught my attention as I read the interview. After all, Hitchens has used them interchangeably before, especially the term “numinous” (coined by the Christian theologian Rudolph Otto as a name for the essential core of religious experience).

More to Life than Just Matter

In the acknowledgments section of God is not Great, for example, Hitchens attributes to Ian McEwan’s fiction “an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural.” Apparently finding this comment provocative, an interviewer for the SoMA Review asked Hitchens about it. His reply:

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.

Here, Hitchens seems to take “the numinous” to refer to nothing more than a feeling of awe or wonder, which according to Hitchens can (and should) be inspired by purely natural phenomena without any invocation of the supernatural. But in his interview with Sewell, Hitchens goes further. When asked to talk about it he replies that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here—to wit, that “the numinous” refers to the sense that there’s something more to our existence than just the material world? Something… dare we call it… supernatural? Of course, Hitchens is quick to qualify this statement by insisting that “it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff.”

But, of course, there’s an enormous difference between saying that we can divorce the numinous (understood as a sense of awe) from the supernatural (understood as something transcending the material world), and saying that we can divorce the numinous (understood as a sense of contact with something transcending the natural world) from the hierarchy and dogma of traditional religious institutions. Hitchens’ earlier comments about the numinous seem to say the former, but this comment sounds much closer to the latter.

Unsurprisingly, Sewell points out that the feeling Hitchens calls numinous, “might be a religious impulse.” Hitchens says no, it’s a human impulse (as if these things were mutually exclusive). And he goes on to express his staunch opposition to “handing over that very important department of our psyche” to religious leaders. “I have no time to waste on this planet,” he says, “being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.”

Sewell presses on, explaining why she finds a close alignment between the numinous in Hitchens’ sense and her own experience of religion. Moments later when asked about “the soul” (inspired by his oft-repeated claim that “literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and soul”) Hitchens responds:

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.

Were he not so quick to follow up by deriding religion once again, one might take him here for a deeply religious man.

In some ways, the peculiar perspective on religion Hitchens expresses here is nothing new to me. In the course of writing Is God a Delusion?, I noticed that Hitchens has an almost knee-jerk tendency to immunize anything he admires from the “religion” label. He describes the faith of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—executed for resisting the Nazis—as “an admirable but nebulous humanism.” He says of Martin Luther King Jr. that “(i)n no real as opposed to nominal sense… was he a Christian.” As proof, he points out that King never suggested “that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next.”

These observations led me to offer the following analysis:

Hitchens’ strategy seems to be this: if it is good, noble, or tends to inspire compassion, then it isn’t “religion.” It is “humanism” or something of the sort. With no clear definition to guide him, Hitchens is free to locate only what is cruel, callous, insipid, or banal in the camp of religion, while excluding anything that could reliably motivate the heroic moral action exemplified by Bonhoeffer and King. When “religion” is never defined, but in practice is treated so that only what is poisonous qualifies, it becomes trivially easy to conclude that “religion poisons everything.”

What I failed to ask then, however, was why Hitchens might come to use “religion” in such a peculiar (to me) way. The significance of this question only deepens when we see just how similar Hitchens’ and Sewell’s views are. In terms of their views about the shortcomings of religious institutions, the possibility of secular morality—even about the existence of something transcendent that invests our lives with a resonance and significance it might otherwise lack—the two are very much alike.

But one calls herself a Christian, even pursuing a vocation in the ministry (albeit in the liberal Unitarian Church). The other calls himself an “anti-theist” and, as part of his vocation, is pursuing a crusade against religion.

So what, exactly, is going on here? The fact is that organized religious communities really do embody many of the things that Hitchens (along with Sewell) abhors: a propensity to demand unswerving allegiance to dubious doctrines; a propensity to marginalize or even vilify those who profess a different faith (or no faith at all); an indifference to reason and evidence; a willingness to justify horrors in the name of God.

First Impressions

But these same institutions have also been, for many, the primary contact-point with the numinous—devoting resources to cultivating our capacity for reverential awe in the face of the wonders that surround us, and providing a ritual space within which the sense of the transcendent has been consciously cultivated. Theologians have meditated sincerely and with great critical rigor on the human condition and its relation to the transcendent.

Put simply, religion is a complex phenomenon admitting of divergent traits. It has always focused on the human encounter with the transcendent. But it has also been shaped by the ideological, superstitious, power-seeking and fear-driven impulses that infect so much of human social life.

Hitchens’ instinct is to define religion in terms of the latter; to view religion as poisonous and to exclude from the scope of “religion” anything that doesn’t warrant such a judgment. Sewell’s instinct, by contrast, is to define religion in terms of the collective human quest to both understand the meaning of our numinous experience and deliberately connect with the transcendent—and as such, she views everything that Hitchens takes as definitive of religion as, instead, its corruption.

I suspect these opposing instincts may be rooted in our earliest encounters with religious life. While I can’t speak to Sewell’s experience, my own seminal experience of religion was embodied in my relationship with my grandfather who, when I was a child, served as the minister of a small church in coastal Oregon.

We’d visit every summer, and I can vividly recall helping him on Sunday mornings to haul the rope that rang the church bell (although I’m pretty certain now that he was doing all the work). I recall a small sanctuary, wooden pews, and my own efforts to sing along with hymns I didn’t know and was too young to read. Most of all I remember the sense that there was something greater than me, greater than all of us, something that was moving among us and holding us together as we sang. I felt, as a young child, a sense of awe in the presence of the divine.

I don’t remember much about doctrine. The closest I can come to some substantive belief relates to an incident in the woods. My grandfather and I were picking blackberries when I was stung in the eye by a bee. I had so many allergies that he was terrified I might be allergic to bee stings. And so he ran with me through the woods. I can’t recall the pain, although I’m sure I was screaming. All I can remember is the strength of his arms, his fierce love, and the Aqua Velva roughness of his cheek.

I asked him if I was going to die. He said no. But I remember thinking that it would be okay either way. Because God’s arms were like his arms. They’d carry me. (I’m sure my grandfather had at some point said something of the sort to me, something about God’s love, about death not being the end because God loved us too much to let us go.)

And so as I grew and came to reflect honestly on religious communities in all their finitude and flaws, I couldn’t help but see something beautiful, something worth lifting out from all the crud and treasuring. For me, the heart of religion is an encounter with a transcendent something—something that explains why love has the kind of power that it seems to have, that explains why a response of wonder and awe is appropriate in the face of the cosmos, why our sense of its beauty is more than just a biochemical response to a bunch of mindless micro-particles exerting force on each other in accord with mechanistic laws.

By contrast, according to Hitchens’ autobiographical remarks at the start of God is not Great, his earliest encounters with religion were of not-so-brilliant people saying obviously silly things in an attempt to conform with or justify the teachings of religious authorities. And so, for him, religion is about “being told what to do (and what to think) by those who think that God has given them instructions.”

When Hitchens thinks about priests and rabbis and shamans, he envisions a presumptuous riffraff who claim to speak for God, who exploit the credulity of others, telling them what to do and what to think, all for the sake of their own egos and agendas. When I think about clergy, I think about a grandfather who nurtured me, and all the pastors through the years with whom I’ve had lively discussions about the meaning of life.

For me, the essence of religion is the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous. Religious life has thus served as a rich trough of ideas and insights as I wrestle with what it means to be human, whereas for Hitchens, “religion” refers to something that, rather than provide food for thought, enforces restrictions on it. Religion is defined by all the forces that impede the quest for the transcendent, all the strictures and constraints that prevent us from honestly exploring the meaning of numinous experience.

And this may be what makes Hitchens, for all his bombast and pugilistic excesses, the best of the so-called New Atheists. While he refuses to call the human quest for the transcendent religious, he also explicitly rejects imposing artificial constraints on that quest. And this means that, in the end, he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas; dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.

When it comes right down to it, the biggest difference between Christopher Hitchens and Marylin Sewell is not in their substantive views but in the emotive sense they attach to the word “religion.” They both dig through the complex phenomenon that is religion—one searching for the jewels amidst the junk, the other lifting up the garbage and yelling out “See!” But if Sewell should unearth a treasure, Hitchens may be the first of the New Atheists to acknowledge its worth.

He’ll just refuse to call it “religion.”