Christopher Hitchens and the Politics of Atheism

I could write a long article about the strange way we mythologize the recently dead (especially if they die mid-career), and how particularly inappropriate it is to treat Christopher Hitchens that way, given how much of his writing was devoted to breaking down mythology. But since Glenn Greenwald already wrote that article, I’ll just take those ideas as a place to start.

Hitchens himself was never one to make a socially-required saccharine comment if it got in the way of driving his point home. Interviewed after the death of Jerry Falwell, he lamented that “there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” And his farewell to Jesse Helms article includes the phrase “senile racist buffoon”.

So, in honor of the spirit he didn’t believe in, I’m here to bury Christopher Hitchens, not to praise him.

The New Atheists. I have never been a fan of Hitchens or any of other New Atheists. (My review of two new-atheist classics preceded Hitchens’ God is Not Great, which I would have included.) By treating all religion as either full-throated fundamentalism or watered-down fundamentalism, they overlook the most interesting contemporary religious thinking and also misrepresent a lot of the history of ideas.

Plus, something about Islam makes them crazy. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris found torture in the context of the War on Terror to be “not only permissible, but necessary”. (It’s hard to imagine a position more out-of-step with the tradition of the Humanist Manifestos.) And Hitchens was one of the most outrageous apologists for any abuses the Bush administration could come up with, as long as they were targeted at Muslims.

But at the same time, I get where the New Atheists are coming from, and I think they’re a necessary phase in the development of a more reasonable humanism. To put it bluntly: You are not really equal until you are allowed to as a big a jackass as anybody else.

Put that idea in racial terms: As long as they had to be Booker T. Washington or Martin Luther King to get respect, black Americans were nowhere near equality. Real equality would mean that blacks can be just as obnoxious as whites and get away with it — and nearly half a century after Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, we’re still not all the way there.

Christopher Hitchens was an atheist Muhammad Ali. He didn’t just politely ask to be included, like Jackie Robinson or Joe Louis; he loudly pointed out that he was better than you. If he was an obnoxious jerk at times, well, that in itself was a step towards equality. During Hitchens’ career, how many high-profile Christians got away with being loud obnoxious jerks? Lots.

Anti-atheist discrimination in politics. Many American atheists are (like Hitchens) economically and educationally above average. But politically they’re still an oppressed class, ranking well behind blacks and even gays. (Let’s not even talk about the Christians who fantasize that they are oppressed because they losing their right to oppress others or to use public resources to promote their faith.)

Last time I checked, there was exactly one admitted atheist in Congress. The constitutions of several states either explicitly ban atheists from holding public office (Tennessee, Article IX), or exclude atheists from the protection of a no-religious-test-for-office clause (Maryland Declaration of Rights, Article 37).

(I haven’t verified the exact number of states that have such clauses. Some articles claim eight, but a few of their links point to obsolete constitutions.)

Bans on atheist office-holders are unenforceable because of the federal constitution, as North Carolinians found out in 2009 when they tried to keep Cecil Bothwell from taking his seat on the Asheville city council by quoting Article VI, section 8 of their constitution. But keeping them on the books is like leaving up the “whites only” signs.

And what exactly is the point of printing “in God we trust” on the money or saying “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Is any public good achieved other than to remind atheists that they aren’t really Americans?

Stereotypes of atheists. In addition to discriminatory laws, personal prejudice against atheists is still socially acceptable. In polls taken over the last 30 years, the number of people who admit they would refuse to vote for an atheist candidate has stayed stuck at around 50%. (A 2007 poll by Newsweek got a 62% refusal.) Compare that to the 17% who said in 1999 that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon or the 38% who wouldn’t vote for a Muslim.

In that same Newsweek poll, 26% thought it was not possible for an atheist to be moral. And this opinion is based on what, exactly? Have atheist leaders been raping children, like Catholic priests have? Have well known atheists been caught doing crystal meth with gay prostitutes, like a certain high-profile televangelist? Have they assassinated doctors in the name of their beliefs? Crashed airplanes into skyscrapers? What?

Mostly, American atheists have just been doing their jobs and raising their families. According to research by the evangelical Barnes Group, 21% of atheists have been divorced, compared to 24% of Mormons and 29% of Baptists. Funny how you never hear about the Baptist threat to American family values.

The immoral atheist is like the shiftless Negro or the greedy Jew — a stereotype. But it’s a stereotype you can still voice in respectable company.

The Overton window. Whether you loved Christopher Hitchens, hated him, or found him embarrassing, you’ve got give him this: He stretched the Overton Window. In the same way that the crazy ravings of Glenn Beck and virulent nastiness of Rush Limbaugh have made previously beyond-the-pale conservatives look like statesmen, Hitchens’ in-your-face style has created some space in the mainstream for softer-spoken atheists and agnostics.

Anybody whose beliefs are more complicated that just “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” owes a little bit to Hitchens. As long as he was the guy sitting furtherest out on the limb, you didn’t have to be.

So I guess, in my own grudging way, I’ve gotten around to praising him after all.

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  • Kim Cooper  On December 19, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Moving that Overton window may have been worth all the rest of it.
    What makes people comfortable with being annoying asshats?

  • Anon  On December 19, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    “And Hitchens was one of the most outrageous apologists for any abuses the Bush administration could come up with, as long as they were targeted at Muslims.”

    That is just ignorant, and an honest writer would revise it. Hitchens detested religion, including Islam. He had no special distaste for Islam. He did however, have a strong unmerciful hate for Islamic terrorists, and their apologists. Your writing would be more interesting if you would quit indulging in your habit of using caricatures instead of real people.

  • Roger  On December 19, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Thanks for giving us some solid evidence against anti-atheist stereotypes. Here’s a little more data:

    In 2006 a study compared atheists with other frequently-criticized groups, finding “that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in ‘sharing their vision of American society.’” They are “seen as a threat to the American way of life . . . .” To top it all off, “Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.” Yikes.

    (See Penny Edgell, et al., American Sociological Review, April, 2006.)

    Many who responded to Edgell’s survey associated non-theism with “criminal behavior . . . rampant materialism and cultural elitism . . . .” So people think of atheists as elitist, materialistic criminals. Can’t you just picture roving bands of non-believers breaking into upscale restaurants, stealing cases of rare old cognac? Those skeptical scoundrels!

    Roger Schriner, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground,


  • By Pressures From Below « The Weekly Sift on December 19, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    […] Christopher Hitchens and the Politics of Atheism. I come to bury Hitchens, not to praise him. But all the same, there are some things you have to give him credit for. […]

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