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Hitchens' Worldview 
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Post Hitchens' Worldview
In discussing God Is Not Great, an implicit question arises regarding the underpinning philosophical worldview which informs Hitchens' arguments. This is important for the claim that atheism is not a belief but rather an anti-belief. As I have noted in earlier comments, Hitchens makes use of the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Bertrand Russell, with an apparent assumption that they are simply objective and correct.

Hobbes' Leviathan is described by Hitchens (p156) as 'quite breathtaking … eloquence in itself'. Hitchens describes Hobbes as 'having planted the subversive thought' that the Bible is 'absurd and contradictory'. This short discussion of Hobbes conceals a broad set of assumptions which are central to Hitchens' worldview, including the social contract theory of state and government and a mechanistic morality. Hobbes was at the foundation of the modern legalistic atheism of which Hitchens is a modern exponent. With Locke, Hobbes expounded a rational empirical worldview which formed the objective imperialism of British world domination. I am not saying that is a bad thing, just observing that it contains a racial cultural baggage which is more powerful when it is denied.

David Hume is the great hero of logical positivism, the slayer of monkish thought on behalf of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hitchens picks up Hume's “unavoidable question” (p135) of whether God is imaginary, his castigation of miracles as delusory (p141), his comparison between heaven and the nothingness before birth (p259), his warning to Gibbon about fanatical religious zealots, his observation that positing a supreme being was atheist because such a being could have no mind or will (p260), and his refusal, like most of the American Founding Fathers, of pestering proselytizing priests at his deathbed (p269).

Russell, the 'old heretic', is lauded for his separation from the multitude (p101), his far-seeing prescient atheism regarding the wreckage of Russia (p211), and his pithy reading of Kant's destruction of the ontological argument for the existence of God (p265).

Much as I admire these great thinkers, I fear that they have achieved something of a talismanic status for the rational atheist. Slicing away with Ockham's Razor, they take parsimony to extremes, assuming that all mysticism is an irrational vestige of a primitive age.

This prejudicial attitude emerges in Hitchens' discussion of Socrates, to whom he imputes the view that “philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology.” (p256) The problem I have with the worldview informing this comment, which I regard as the central argument of God Is Not Great, is the completely inadequate cosmology that informs it.

The issue which Hitchens avoids here is that philosophy and religion actually seek to answer different questions. Of course they have overlap, but to reduce religion to philosophy abolishes all the mythic complexity and social meaning it provides. Hitchens is arguing that the intellectual understanding of reality derived from philosophy can take the place of a worldview full of complex symbolic meaning that speaks to the depths of human identity.

His summary description of astronomy as a simple matter of progress ignores the fact that it seeks to answer entirely different questions from those of astrology, which was entirely framed by the effort to see humanity as reflecting the complex cosmic cycles of our natural environment. This antique effort is repugnant to the skeptical temper of modern thought, but that is a problem worthy of more consideration than Hitchens' simple agreement with Adorno's description of "interest in stargazing as the consummation of feeble-mindedness". (p74)

Hitchens would be more successful in his exposition if he acknowledged the power of symbolic mythic thought and looked at the evolution of ideas in a less combative way. Instead he continues the simplistic dichotomous logic (with shades of Trotsky's dialectical materialism) which makes the modern empiricism of the British Empire into a universal system.



Wed Apr 22, 2009 6:46 am
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