Christopher Hitchens was more than an atheist. If your regular workaday atheist was a cook, he was a profanity-spewing rageoholic rockstar chef. He was what he termed an anti-theist. He was not content to let the religious life and history play out around him – he wanted it down.
I heard a old radio interview with him last week. He used logic and words to tear up the polite assumptions of organized religion: that we must start with a gentle and undeserved awarding of respect to the religious people we debate. He wanted the murder, the subjugation of third-world countries, the rape of children and the cover up of those rapes, to begin the debate. He thought it a fallacy that religious instruction should be inspire good works – any good work can come from choice, but religions has inspired great deeds of violence where none had come before. He said that in the future, the tribal desert religions will bring the world to the ‘knife edge of extinction.’ I’m inclined to agree with all these statements. I won’t bring in the things he wrote about the Iraq war, or the general ineptness of female comedians or the state of women’s humour in general – he was a drunk, and although he was the sort of drunk people admired and wanted to emulate (but not really), I think that many of his more outrageous positions were written in a flammable fog of alcohol and nicotine.
But… if what he wanted and dreamed came to pass, what’s left over? What do we do with the grand buildings, paintings, tapestries? Well, those are physical things of value, and they’ll be sold off. They’ll be the homes and prize possessions of hedge fund managers, pharma-execs, or legalized marijuana kings – whoever will be making the most money.
Those are the physical things. What about the ephemeral – the concepts, the thinking, the logic, the seats of learning that came alongside religious institutions in which many great atheists hid, the music? What’s to become of the music?
I can’t stand secular Christmas music, most of which was written in places where snow has never fallen. I have to have my carols, my Messiah(but only the highlights), my motets from the Renaissance era, my Mahler symphonies, my Faure and Verdi Requiems. What’s to become of In the Deep Midwinter, which if you’ve never heard it is the finest Christmas carol ever written. Here’s the first verse. Never mind the music; just feast your eyes on the words.
In the Deep Midwinter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,
Snow hath fallen snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the Deep Midwinter, long ago.
I shiver when I hear those words every year.
This is how I see it: if you’re going to do something else besides work, play, eat, and make little you’s, you’re going to think of the ephemeral. You’re going to think of immaterial things, and sometimes you may passionately refer to things that don’t exist – stories, places, things, magical Kingdoms, all-powerful men with Abrahamic beards who watch over us all. We might be at our most impassioned and unrestrained when we write, paint, and compose while thinking of these ephemerals.
|Do I make you horny?
Hitchens wanted us to rely on Literature as our saving grace, the thing that provides us our ephemerals. I’m okay with that – the deconstruction of Joyce, Nabokov, Shakespeare, Blake, and Yeats is all fine with me. I’m not above that sort of thing myself. But for some of us don’t want to rely on the authors of Literature for our ephemerals – authors and writers, after all, are famously fallible. They smoked and drank, whored, beat their wives, had terrible hygiene, and often engaged in shameful feuds with other writers. If the writers of of our ephemeral are going to be the fellows we look up to, they’re going to have to be better than that if regular people are expected to rely on them instead of the bible.
This is probably why we have God, Jesus, Saints, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. We have to have just the stories, the holy texts, almost as though they were sui generis – traditional fiction and criticism just isn’t going to cut it. Sure, I love Phillip Larkin’s poetry, and I think his efficient paeans to realism and atheism should be read by everybody. But Phillip Larkin was a misogynistic, porn-loving librarian, and not a saint with his ears to the heavens. Most people want an ur-story that leaves out the messy personal details. Literature is not going to do that; religion will and does.
So while I agree with Hitchens in regards to my own personal journey, I don’t think anything he or Richard Dawkins wrote have made much difference, aside from making people like themselves and me a little more accepted. People still want a story, the sort you can hear again and again, while gathered around the fire, or the great stone building where they tell the great tales. When we can manufacture a great and immortal secular tale that outlives and beggars the existence of its creator, or if a great and monumental event occurs that doesn’t involve the supernatural, then we can start making our own narrative that goes beyond that small space in the Mid-east where everything started, and just might end… for all of us.
I think we can do it. Before we reach Hitchens’s ‘knife edge of extinction.’