My take: My love/hate relationship with Hitchens
December 17th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

My take: My love/hate relationship with Hitchens

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–My love/hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens started when I read “God Is Not Great.” Before that, he was a hero of mine. I loved his slashing style, his intelligence, his learning, his self-possession and, above all, his passion. But I hated this book.

So I panned it in the “Washington Post.” “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject,” I wrote, before taking Hitchens to task for demonstrating one of his own pet themes: “the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.”

I panned the book because I knew Hitchens could take it, and because he deserved it. But what really motivated me was disappointment. I had disagreed with him before, of course. But in every other case I had the sneaking suspicion he knew more than I did about the subject. And even if he didn’t, I didn’t care, because he was always so much fun to read.

(Did he really call Mother Teresa "a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf"? Yes, in a book called "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.")

Everyone has a blind spot, however, and for Hitchens it was religion. I remember being confused when I began reading “God Is Not Great,” chiefly because I agreed with virtually everything he was saying. Of course, religious institutions have visited all manner of horrors on humanity. Of course, theological writing is often literally incredible. And yes the whole enterprise can be poisonous.

But what I finally saw was that Hitchens wasn’t really dynamiting, as he believed, the whole world of “religion.” He was just blowing up, over and over again, his little corner of a little vacant lot in his own little neighborhood and imagining he was leveling Mecca and Rome.

The problem with Hitchens’ writing on religion is that he did what many preachers do; he let his emotions get the best of him, and then he started preaching to the choir. In the process, he helped to lead a whole generation of New Atheists down a rabbit hole of their own imagining.

Inside that fantasy world, the atheists are always the smartest boys in the class, and around every corner there is a new religious sin to sneer and chuckle at. In the real world, there are millions of intelligent Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews sneering and chuckling at precisely the same stuff. The criticism of religion begins, believe it or not, with embarrassment in the pews.

After my review of "God Is Not Great" appeared, there were various efforts by various people to arrange a debate. I don’t know what I think about God, and I'm not in any hurry to clarify the matter. But I would have welcomed the opportunity to joust with Hitchens on the vices and virtues of religion. Do his critiques apply to Buddhists and Daoists, for example, or to Christians for whom Christianity is something you do on Easter and Christmas, and Hindus for whom Hinduism is something you do when you are getting married or starting a new job?

There was an offer to appear with Hitchens on some show involving Roseanne Barr. I declined. For some reason I didn’t think that talking over her was going to make for good conversation.

Then there was an event involving the two of us set for November 2010 in New York. But Hitchens got sick and had to cancel at the last minute.

It would be fun to rip Hitchens here. It might even qualify as a tribute of sorts, since he had a well deserved reputation for speaking ill of the dead. He called televangelist Jerry Falwell “an ugly little charlatan” just after his passing, adding acidly that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” But I do not come to bury Hitchens.

I have been doing some research recently on Thomas Paine, whose “Common Sense” (1776) may well be the most influential piece of writing in U.S. history (second, I say, to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe). Paine died penniless and disgraced, however, largely because he decided to air his religious heterodoxy in “The Age of Reason" (1794-95).

Paine and Hitchens share much. Each bravely rejected the religious orthodoxies of his time, and did so publicly and without equivocation. Each wrote in a fighter's style intended both to cut and to bleed. So it did not surprise me to come across a 1987 essay in which Hitchens calls Paine “the greatest Englishman and the finest American.”

Hitchens, who was born in England but made America his home, was a pretty great Englishman and a pretty fine American himself. He will always be one of my favorite writers, and I am missing him today a lot more than I imagined I would.

But he didn't know the first thing about religion, so whenever he wrote or spoke about it he made himself look stupid. I suppose I should give him credit for that. It's not an easy thing to do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Uncategorized

soundoff (369 Responses)
  1. b4bigbang

    sorry, actually not as brief....

    December 18, 2011 at 1:04 am |
    • fred

      You mentioned "the fact that u will never be able to prove/disprove god via science isnt an accident,"
      Exactly what or why is that no accident and what blocks reason from reaching God?

      December 18, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  2. b4bigbang

    GodofLunaticsCreation There is a lot of belief in your post and no Science. If you take the bible as being accurate, like you state, then the earth would be flat.

    I'll be brief as u are: Bible does not posit that the earth is flat, neither does it posit that the earth is the center with everything revolving around it.
    Btw, the Greek religion u r referring to is where the Roman cult ("catholic church") came up with the idea of earth being center of the universe. The Greeks, as u pointed out, were had the best science of the day, so the Vatican grabbed onto it and insisted the geocentric thing was the truth. Since the hierarchy made it so, then to dissent was to do so at your own peril (Vatican failed another Bible test of Christian authenticity there as well).

    December 18, 2011 at 1:03 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Ive been on for too long, I apologize but my brain is not at 100% right now. I did not say anything about the geocentric model but I have heard some arguments that the flat earth was a mistranslation. I have read the bible and I have to say it requires many suspensions of scientific principles. For someone with a limited time on this earth I will stick to more provable concepts. Im glad if you are a truth seeker. That, I appreciate. Just keep questioning and you will find the truth. To all the bigots on here. You will never be half the man Hitch was. Goodnight!

      December 18, 2011 at 1:10 am |
  3. b4bigbang

    NO !! It is not logical to talk about ANYTHING time related, "before" time. All we can say is "we don't know". Like many things in the universe, (relativity, quantum uncertainty), it is non intuitive. Best not to make up stories about things we don't know.

    That's where God/philosophy come in. Indeed, some of the scientists are saying that string theory isnt science but philosophy. Re "making things up", i agree. What we know re God is there for the taking, but what we dont know is NOT to be made up and propagated any more than we dont make up data to fill in blanks in science.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      You are misrepresenting string theory. It is not on the level of religion. The only reason it is called a philosophy by some is because we are unable to test it currently due to technological limitations, not because it is totally untestable, ie God.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  4. b4bigbang

    GodofLunaticsCreation The followers of Zeus would agree.

    I realize by your snarky answer that a rebuttal to it is probably ill-advised, but im bored so why not?
    There's a world of diff between worshipping the creation rather than the creator (read Romans in the new testament). Anyone who tells people that fairies or santa are real can be quickly discounted, but God has had believers since the beginning of time and the Bible is quite well-ordered and gives a great historical account.
    Btw, the fact that u will never be able to prove/disprove god via science isnt an accident, the reason is brought forth plainly from the outset.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      There is a lot of belief in your post and no Science. If you take the bible as being accurate, like you state, then the earth would be flat.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      By the way, the Greeks were one of the first, if not THE first, people to come up with logic. They were much more logical than the psychobabel coming out of the middle eastern religions. So there is more proof of the logic of Zeus than the Christian God.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • Matt

      b4, people have not always believed in God. There have been many religions worshiping one or more gods, many of those predating the creation of the God of Abraham. The Bible is not well ordered and there are multiple contradictions in the text, suggesting it is the creation of several humans. As far as eyewitness accounts though, there is a difference between a statement in one book that says there were many eyewitnesses and there actually being several different journal entries saying "I just saw this dude change water into wine."

      December 18, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  5. GodofLunaticsCreation


    December 18, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  6. b4bigbang

    I can't speak for other belief systems but Christianity isn't illogical. The fact that we dont know everything re God doesnt mean there's no evidence for his existence. We do know that there were many eyewitnesses to the fact of Christ's reserrection and ascention, enough to convince an unbiased jury if one would've been assembled at the time.

    I believe one reason many scientists believe in God is because having an intelligent originator for reality is philsophically better than saying I dont know, but btw my lab equipment indicates that God probably doesnt exist.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      The followers of Zeus would agree.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Just because something is "philosophically better", (ie "makes you feel better"), does not make it true. Secondly, many scientists have proposed perfectly logical theories of how this universe may have come about, from nothing. Belief in a deity is only one of many options, and to project "personhood" on that, since that is all WE have experienced in our VERY small experience of the totality of reality, is extremely arrogant. 95 % of the universe is unknown to us at this point, (Dark Energy, and Dark Matter are theories, but whatever is there, we DON"T KNOW). Seems "we don't know" IS the best option at this point. String Theory is just that, but at least it falls out from the math. The "god did it" is just an ancient way of explaining your observations, and worshiping it is an attempt to control it. There is no evidence for the Deity Theory.

      December 18, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  7. Chrism

    Excellent article and analysis of Hitchens book. And spot on hitchens just was awful at religion despite thinking as much about it as he did. I have to admit as much as I liked the debates because I was challenged to think about my faith I would hear really misguided arguments yet desperate hitch wannabe atheists were like wow great argument. Man when hitch said it is immoral for Jesus to accept people's sins, what a low point! Did hitch really believe he could charm that one across. Ironically it's atheists who normally argue the opposite, how can God send anyone to hell without realizing what their complaining about is a fallacy that God hasn't offered to take their sins away. So here you've got some complaining God is unfair by not taking sins (though he does they just miss that he does) and hitch complaining its immoral that He does take away sins. Maybe all those athesits should just go at it and argue with each other. Meanwhile the majority of us will just be thanking God for the great gift of mercy He gives us that His mercy balances His justice.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Im not surprised that you totally misunderstood all sides of the arguments you brought up? Misrepresenting ideas so that you can easily and wrongfully attack them seems to be a religious pastime.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Chrism

      G.o.lunatic, I really wish I could help you for you seem so lost and bitter. Your post is so sad. Do you realize how obvious it is when someone makes a post like yours? You can't even respond, you know you have no basis to disagree but you want to disagree because of your entrenched false belief. Here I correctly presented two conflicting arguments both from atheists, both wrong. And all you can do is whine something about um you're misrepresenting um you don't know what you're saying? Lunatic, you didn't even respond. Of course I represented hitch and atheists correctly I've listened to both. Please stop pretending to put down what you know you can't actually deny. Try just being yourself. Be honest.

      December 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  8. Kebos

    I disagree wholeheartedly with the author of this article. Hitchens opinions and thoughts on religion made a lot of sense. He had the gift of reason and to articulate it well. Christopher Hitchens is very much missed.

    December 18, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Zeke

      Hitchens was not great – Hitchens life was a life wasted on atheist delusions. Reality rules.

      December 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  9. b4bigbang

    llɐq ʎʞɔnq First, there is no "before" the Big Bang, as the 4 dimensions, (and the others we think may be present), began *AT* the Big Bang. Can't have a "before" time started. Then re: line 14, I can't figure that one out. Are you talking about Snooky ? Is your name Carla ?

    Wow, u got your handle upside down, cool, how u do that? But to answer u, the moniker "b4bigbang" is merely a way to stimulate conversation on important stuff, rather than Snooky, Demi, et al, ad nauseum (apologies to my wife and other celebrity hounds).

    As to what existed before the big bang (invented by a Catholic priest btw), all i know is that God existed before all things. Also, the scientists quickly admit that they don't know anything beyond a certain point (ref Brian Greene's books/tv shows).

    Regarding the Arabic script, that's supposed to be the 1st chapter of Hebrews (NT), but who knows?

    December 18, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Matt

      Yep, that's how science works. If we don't know something, we don't make something up.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:13 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Im happy that you can fill in the blanks with your totally unproven God.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Oh, OK. I thought something was screwy about my translation. Parts of it I did got, ("You are my son, this day I have begotten you" etc.) I know it better in Latin, (Dominus dixit ad me, filius meus est tu....). Anyway, NO !! It is not logical to talk about ANYTHING time related, "before" time. All we can say is "we don't know". Like many things in the universe, (relativity, quantum uncertainty), it is non intuitive. Best not to make up stories about things we don't know. 8)

      December 18, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      oops...should have said "did get"..

      December 18, 2011 at 1:06 am |
  10. Iqbal Khan


    December 17, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  11. Zeke

    A-theist-anti-theist...a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose...

    "Atheism is so senseless & odious to mankind that it never had many professors". ~ Isaac Newton

    December 17, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Newton! LOL Still living in the past. By the way, Newtons theories which allow for God have been proven false.“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” STEPHEN HAWKING

      December 18, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Matt

      I think Newton may have been influenced by what happened to Galileo...

      December 18, 2011 at 12:21 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      If Newton had said anything that didn't allow for God he would have been erased from history and most likely tortured to death by the same moronic Christians that now benefit from those who fought against the tyranny and oppression of Christianity.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  12. GodofLunaticsCreation


    December 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  13. b4bigbang

    1 الله بعد ما كلم الآباء بالانبياء قديما بانواع وطرق كثيرة

    2 كلمنا في هذه الايام الاخيرة في ابنه الذي جعله وارثا لكل شيء الذي به ايضا عمل العالمين

    3 الذي وهو بهاء مجده ورسم جوهره وحامل كل الاشياء بكلمة قدرته بعدما صنع بنفسه تطهيرا لخطايانا جلس في يمين العظمة في الاعالي

    4 صائرا اعظم من الملائكة بمقدار ما ورث اسما افضل منهم

    5 لانه لمن من الملائكة قال قط انت ابني انا اليوم ولدتك.وايضا انا اكون له ابا وهو يكون لي ابنا.

    6 وايضا متى ادخل البكر الى العالم يقول ولتسجد له كل ملائكة الله.

    7 وعن الملائكة يقول الصانع ملائكته رياحا وخدامه لهيب نار.

    8 واما عن الابن كرسيك يا الله الى دهر الدهور.قضيب استقامة قضيب ملكك.

    9 احببت البر وابغضت الاثم من اجل ذلك مسحك الله الهك بزيت الابتهاج اكثر من شركائك.

    10 وانت يا رب في البدء اسست الارض والسموات هي عمل يديك.

    11 هي تبيد ولكن انت تبقى وكلها كثوب تبلى

    12 وكرداء تطويها فتتغيّر ولكن انت انت وسنوك لن تفنى.

    13 ثم لمن من الملائكة قال قط اجلس عن يميني حتى اضع اعداءك موطئا لقدميك.

    14 أليس جميعهم ارواحا خادمة مرسلة للخدمة لاجل العتيدين ان يرثوا الخلاص

    December 17, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      First, there is no "before" the Big Bang, as the 4 dimensions, (and the others we think may be present), began *AT* the Big Bang. Can't have a "before" time started. Then re: line 14, I can't figure that one out. Are you talking about Snooky ? Is your name Carla ?

      December 17, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
  14. GodofLunaticsCreation


    December 17, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Hitchens destroys Islam. Video above.

      December 17, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  15. Iqbal Khan


    December 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Matt

      Made it through the first 3:00 and can already tell that this is going to be a repeti-tion of oft repeated fallacies.
      1) "Is it likely that the universe was created by chance? No, therefore God must exist" - It is much less likely that a God, all-powerful and all-knowing, an incomprehensibly complex being, exists.
      2) - The law of entropy can be violated locally, but not globally, meaning though a particular region of the universe becomes more ordered, the rest of the universe must become more disordered. This allows for life as simply being alive generates heat, the most disordered for of energy. Stop eating for a couple of weeks and no more life. The primordial state represented a highly uniform and condensed state and the big bang lead to an overall increase in disorder, both by expansion and disrupting the uniform state.

      I didn't feel like watching the rest of that video.

      December 17, 2011 at 11:43 pm |
    • Answer

      Stupid people saying stupid stuff will always make the same fallacies.

      December 17, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  16. Ungodly Discipline

    Brothers and Sisters raise your glasses. Salute to our fallen brother. Salute to his memory. He will be missed. Salute.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  17. Zeke

    Hitchens – like most of the 'new' village atheists displayed his ignorance in the fields of history and theology.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      And you show your ignorance of Hitchens. He was not an Atheist. He was an Anti-theist.

      December 17, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  18. Reality

    Hitchens, Prothero, Crossan, Ludemann, et al in summary form thereby saving you from anymore time thinking about religion:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life e.g. "DO NO HARM".

    No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, popes, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  19. Skeptik

    This article was very poorly written and pointless. The author should be greatfull that he never faced Mr. Hitchens in a debate.

    December 17, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  20. Peggy

    Do his critiques apply to Buddhists and Daoists, for example, or to Christians for whom Christianity is something you do on Easter and Christmas, and Hindus for whom Hinduism is something you do when you are getting married or starting a new job?" This quote displays such a misunderstanding of both Mr. Hitchens and certain religions that I think the author should be thankful he never met Mr. Hitchens in debate. Mr. Hitchens was an a-theist, one who does not believe in a God. Neither Buddhism nor Daoism are theologies that are "god" centered. Whether or not Mr. Hitchens would oppose the group mind set that may be a result of the practice of Buddhism and Daoism (I suspect he might), it certainly displays a lack of understanding by the author to compare a criticism of theistic religion with a prescribed way of life. This article smacks of opportunism at its worst.

    December 17, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Zeke

      Mr. Hitchens – believed via great faith that God did not exist..

      December 17, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      I have a faith that Santa doesn't exist either. Since he can't be unproven either.

      December 17, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Zeke

      Then you and Hitchens share great faith. Do you KNOW God doesn't exist or are you simply mad that He does exist?

      December 18, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • GodofLunaticsCreation

      Only one God less than what you deny. See, you are an atheist for all the millions of Gods except one. It's not possible to be mad at "god" the same way I can't be mad at Santa. You can't be mad at something that doesn't exist.

      December 18, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • Zeke

      There is but one Living God – the One you profess to reject via your great faith. Sad...

      “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.” ~ Albert Einstein

      "Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors." – Sir Isaac Newton

      December 18, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
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