Hitchens Gets it Right: Why me and an atheist agree, and why I hope he agrees with me too

The other day on my way to work, NPR featured a report on the much publicized feud between esteemed atheist author Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter, a devout Anglican who believes that the sheer presence of morality necessitates the existence of God. His brother Christopher could not disagree more, just look to his bestseller God is Not Great if you are looking for proof of that!

For the most part, Christopher Hitchens and I disagree, but as part of the interview Hitchens revealed some of his own vulnerability in discussing his bout with cancer and his potential demise, saying this, “The psychological makeup of [facing death] is roughly the same whether you assume a supernatural dimension or not.” Hitchens contends that the emotions of impending death are tantamount whether someone believes in God and an afterlife or if they are a pure atheist, like himself (read the full article, “Hitchens Brothers Agree to Disagree Over God” at NPR).

I agree with Hitchens.

Again, for clarity’s sake; I agree with Hitchens.

The emotions that one faces when dealing with a potentially deadly illness or is on one’s death bed are the same whether one is a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist, agnostic or something else entirely. The emotions are equal in intensity and it would be unfair to say that Christians don’t have those emotions, or, as some have assumed of Hitchens, that atheists are indifferent towards death because there is neither something to fear or something to look forward to.

However, the way an individual resolves those emotions is an entirely different matter.

Being a public figure, and at that a very contentious one, who also happens to be going through a very public fight with a terminal illness, Hitchens naturally garners the mass public’s attention.

I don’t want there to be a mix up with what the truth of the matter is. So let’s clear it up.

Hitchens assumes that the emotions of facing death are the same for people of religion or not. To that point he is correct. It is not clear whether he assumes that the way a person deals with those emotions is the same across religious and secular lines. Knowing his work I would assume that he posits that religion is useless when it comes to dealing with the emotions of death, or at the very least, not necessary.

To answer that challenge I turn to research published by Kathryn L. Braun and Ana Zir in the December 2001 edition of the Death Studies Journal.Their report included case studies of Christian people facing death in Honolulu hospitals. These individuals then received spiritual care from local clergy. Although all reported feelings of fear and uncertainty concerning their death, the vast majority of them felt a certain sense of resolve after receiving spiritual counseling from the clergy. The conclusion was that Christian clergy visitation near the end of life can indeed play a role in achieving a “good” death in the eyes of end of life care providers. They noted that Christian clergy and end of life counseling helped those dying resolve both spiritual and practical death issues, facilitated a process of reconciliation and forgiveness between the ill and their estranged family or friends and helped guide attitudes related to dying and death in a positive direction among both the dying and the bereaving.

Now, all of these people were Christian. How this would play out with atheists I do not know.

But I do know this. Mr. Hitchens I agree with you. Death is a scary, intimidating, confusing and disheartening event. My thoughts and prayers are with you (for what that is worth) as you struggle with cancer, death and epistemology at such a time. It is my sincere hope that you survive. Yet, I cannot help but disagree with the inference behind your statement, because in reality faith does play a tangible role in helping people deal with death in a positive way. For that matter it helps deal well with the end of life, aiding the dying in forgiving past wrongs and reconciling differences. I am glad you and your brother are coming to a point of agreement about your disagreements, and I have no doubt that atheists can deal well with their emotions at death as well.

But ask yourself this, as you continually decry the mythic fairy tales of religion and call for its worldwide cessation might you concede that religion plays a positive role in helping people deal with death and see to a positive end to their life?

I think that’s a point we can both agree on and sincerely hope we will.

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11 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Christianity, Non-Religion, Worldview

11 responses to “Hitchens Gets it Right: Why me and an atheist agree, and why I hope he agrees with me too

  1. I pray that Hitchens changes his mind before it is too late. I am disgusted with the whole evangelical atheist movement. The atheists claim their beliefs are a non religion. However, they sure do preach a lot, and they are trying to very hard to convert everyone to atheism.

    • Sherrie

      I respect your right to be disgusted to the growing number of atheists who must seem to you to be coming out of the woodwork. However, do you not see the the hypocrisy of your last sentence? Has preaching and conversion not been one of the most important purposes of the Christian church since the beginning of time? As the sciences punch more and more holes in the world’s religions each day, isn’t it only natural that thinking people would eventually push back against the nonsense of it all?

      • recreative

        Sherrie,
        I am assuming your comment is directed at the previous commenter and not at me (the author of the post). I assume this only because I am not disgusted with atheists nor do I disagree that many individuals are “pushing back against the nonsense” often, but not always, produced by religion.

        I respect your right, and the right of the other commenter to post here, but please try to keep it as civil as possible.

        Cheers.

        -Ken

  2. Tim

    Admitting that religion helps people also doesn’t necessarily prove the existence of God.

    • recreative

      Tim,

      No it doesn’t, you are absolutely right. If you read my post as if that was the argument then it either deserves a re-write or a re-read.

      I doubt Hitchens, or any real atheist, would concede on such a point (as you duly note). Indeed, I would be disappointed if they did.

      However, Hitchens and many others are taking the point of view that religion is A) false, B) not necessary and or helpful and C) downright dangerous. This discussion post is not one to try and refute argument A or even half of argument B. Rather it is meant to show that religion is not always dangerous and that often it can be helpful.

      Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency of the argument that if religion is helpful it is true, although that’s not my argument at all.

  3. MR (to you) Lee

    Even if Hitchens agrees with the positive role ‘faith’ plays when facing death, by comparison to what Hitchens has stood for, it would still be of little significance and/or relevance. Hitchens is known for antagonizing what he considers the antithesis of progression. The obstruction of scientific research, civil rights, education, and even peace, is the main reason behind Hitchens’ work. The power of positive thinking really isn’t his bag. No offense to Peale, but we will never see a single one of Hitchens’ books in a ‘Self Help’ section because this topic is irrelevant. I think how we live (Hitchens’ focus) is more important than how we handle death. Not to bash this post, but I wouldn’t find it intriguing at all whether or not he conceded of such a perspective.

    This comment is brought to you by… someone who wants better posts out of you. I like the way you write, very articulate and easy to read.

    • Ken Chitwood

      Thank you for the comment and the, um, encouragement. 🙂

      You may be right.

      Maybe.

      Let me share with you the sociological theory of Peter Berger, who proposed that anomy (things like suffering, evil and above all death) constantly threaten the precarious peace of our self-built societies, whether they be blatantly religious or not. In the face of anomy individuals will build a societal structure that protects them from the threat thereof and then develop sophisticated scaffolding in the form of institutions and leaders (church, government etc.) to bolster such structures (what Berger refers to as “nomos” or law/order).

      Atheism, or non-religion, is a nomos whereby those who do not believe in God or gods construct a secular-scientific worldview that protects them from anomy (such as suffering, evil and death…I could flesh this out more, but there isn’t the time at the moment, but feel free to e-mail me). As an example, Hitchens’ compatriot Dawkins refers to atheists being the brave pioneers of society peering into the wide and dark chasm of the universe and courageously asking the questions and discovering the answers others cannot because of religion. As such a nomos, secularity/non-religion constructs a way of life (scientific research, civil rights discussion, educational reform and the seeking of peace) to guard them against suffering, evil and the greatest source of anomy – death. Thus, death issues become way of life issues.

      As I slightly implied in my post, religion has a positive affect (what you call “self-help,” a term that makes me gag) at the time of death. I infer from this that religion, as a “sacred umbrella” sheltering individuals from the painful fear of death can also have a positive impact on the way one lives life.

      I know for a fact that religion can positively encourage progressive scientific research, the pursuit of equality and civil rights, the improvement of education and the spread of peace. Granted, at times, and frequently in the last 150 years religion has obstructed such things. Yet, as Jim Wallis says, just because some do it doesn’t mean that all do it. And arguing that because of the “some” that have a negative affect on life we should get rid of all “religion” is a tenuous argument that could very well come back upon the heads of its current secular proponents.

      I am not one to lump myself in with the presently popular wave of evangelicals that dominate the airwaves on such topics and I certainly hope I don’t come across as one. I respect Hitchens, and honestly, I agree with him on a myriad of issues and feel heartfelt sorrow for some the wrongs of religion that he poignantly discusses in his books and talks.

      As I stated in my response to Tim, this is a place to dialogue and my theory is that at some point in time atheists and people of religion have to start talking in such a way that we don’t fight for the eradication of the other. Without that premise, true dialogue will never happen between the two camps.

      I thought that this might be a way to get that started. I may be wrong.

      Maybe.

  4. Tim

    You didn’t imply the concept necessarily but the purpose of your argument was a little ambiguous and I think in the context could be read as sneaking toward that direction.

    If religion is false it shouldn’t be taught or tolerated regardless of the practical benefits. If religion is true it should be taught and tolerated regardless of the practical dangers.

    I could be missing something but as far as I can tell points B and C are only seem important if you aren’t sure about A. As Hitchens doesn’t strike me as unsure about A, I don’t see much point in trying to change his mind about B and C.

    • recreative

      Thanks for the comment Tim, and well put.

      I apologize that my purpose was ambiguous in the post, someone else said the same and that is my mistake.

      Knowing that I won’t change his mind about A doesn’t mean he can’t agree with me on points B and C, for the simple reason that I can agree with him and my A is different. It’s possible, it’s called dialogue and that’s really the meaning behind what I am writing. (not implied by the post but by the spirit of this blog).

      Thanks Tim for the comments, please keep them coming. I don’t claim to be right on everything and this is meant to be a place for people to comment, critique and question. Peace.

  5. kelsey_postcard

    Ken,

    I’m always impressed with your writing skills…ashamedly green with envy, sometimes 🙂

    I hope you’re doing well in TX! Miss you and Ellie out here on West Coast!

    Give my love!

  6. Pingback: “And the Award Goes To…” Ubuntu Religion Awards 2010 « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

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