In Chapter Seventeen, Hitchens tries to answer the question created by secularist atrocities.
“Is it not true that secular and atheist regimes have committed crimes and massacres that are, in the scale of things, at least as bad if not worse?” (p. 229)
There are two responses here. The first is a brief reply to Hitchens explanation of how atheist regimes get that way. The second is a return my favorite equine carcasse, in order to flog it one more time.
The explanation that Hitchens puts forward for the misbehavior of atheist regimes is that when they become totalitarian, they have at that point become religions. Quoting Orwell, he says, “A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible” (p. 232, emphasis in the original). And a bit later, Hitchens says this:
“In the Bolshevik ranks, as among the Jacobins of 1789, there were also those who saw the revolution as a sort of alternative religion” (p. 244).
“Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it” (p. 246).
All this is insightful, and dead on. But what Hitchens misses is that it is not something that the Jacobins or Marxists decided to do. It is inescapable. They were not in a position to not do it. All law is the imposition of morality, and all law systems are codified moral systems. At the head of each codified moral system is the god of the system. When you have found the source of law, you have found the god of the system. This was the case in Moses’ Israel, in Confucian China, in Marxist Russia, and in secularist Manhattan. It would be the case in any societal blueprints drafted entirely by Christopher Hitchens. The systems differ because the gods differ. But Hitchens has a worldview which is entirely invisible to him. He sees that other people believe what they do, and they build their law orders accordingly. But when he proposes a law order, it is suspended in mid-air, based on nothing other than what “everybody knows.” But everybody doesn’t know it, and so the system has to be modified to what “everybody who matters knows.”
All cultures are the incarnational outworking of a religion or combination of religions. When you deny a transcendant God, this does not eliminate the need for a god at the top to make the system coherent. It just means that the applicants for the position of deity are all, to use one of Hitchens’ favorite words, mammals. It can be just one mammal, as in North Korea, or it can be fifty million mammals with a system of primary elections, a general election, topped off with an electoral college election. If there is no God above the system, then the system is god. All societies are religious organisms, not just the ones with a religious exoskeleton.
This is nothing other than to call Orwell, and raise him ten. All human societies are theocracies. The only issue that confronts us is which theos we will serve. The atrocious cultures are the ones who serve atrocious gods. And if an atrocious one does what it does in the name of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (and Hitchens has numerous examples of that in this chapter), then this reveals the true god of the system. Devil worship is not cleaned up or transformed by doing it all in the name of Jesus. The devil loves doing things in the name of Jesus.
This brings us back to my dead horse. By what standard? I am afraid that Hitchens has missed the central ethical problem that atheism faces, and he has missed that point again.
“Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize. But it can apologize for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief” (p. 250).
This is mere hand-waving. What are “its own terms”? And humanism is supposed to have an advantage over traditional religion (the ones with an unalterable system of belief) because it can apologize for “crimes,” without have to bring any challenge to an unalterable system of belief. You see, the gods in heaven don’t change their minds, and so when traditional religion is confronted with various crimes, the challenge goes right down to their foundations. Well, in the case of many traditional religions, the challenge needs to go right down to the foundations. Again, the Christian is identified, not with “religion” generally, but with Christ specifically.
But that is not our concern here. Our concern right now is humanism. Humanism can apologize for its crimes because it doesn’t have an unalterable foundation, and is therefore flexible. Humanism is not all stiff in the joints like some other hide-bound traditions we could name. But if humanism doesn’t have an unalterable foundation, then that means its foundation is alterable. And if its foundation is alterable, one of the things that can be altered is the definition of what constitutes a crime in the first place.
It amazes me that someone of Hitchens’ intelligence does not see this. As I have noted before, Hitchens is a gifted writer. This means he has a boatload of vivid adjectives and nouns at his fingertips. But, also as noted before, a boatload of vivid adjectives and nouns does not make up a coherent moral system. Hitchens can say, and indeed does say, things like megalomania, bovine elders, vile, ravings, deranged, piffle, hideous din, pathetic mammal son, and arrogant and insufferable belief.
Hitchens acknowledges that secularist hellholes are wrong. He explains (in many ways, accurately) how they came to be so wrong. In many cases it was because of the previous misbehavior of believers. Granted. He vividly lances the pomposity and pretensions of those who are wrong in this way. The only thing he does not explain — for he cannot explain — is why they are wrong.
But we know from this chapter that his indignation is not grounded on the bedrock of anything that is “unalterable.” His indignation is therefore a floating indignation. It is not anchored. It is not grounded. It is not fixed. And like all such things that float on the surface of turbulent ocean currents, in a couple generations that indignation is likely to be a long way away from here.