When you find someone citing an opponent saying something outrageous, it generally behooves you to check the source. It’s easy to take statements out of context, to twist their meaning, to make things up altogether. So when I read in Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe In Atheists that Christopher Hitchens said of Martin Luther King that “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he [King] a Christian,” I thought I should check the source. And in fact it was misleading to strip the sentence of its context. The whole passage is far less believable:
Christian reformism arose originally from the ability of its advocates to contrast the Old Testament with the New. The cobbled-together ancient Jewish books had an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator). Whereas the cobbled-together books of the last two thousand years contained handholds for the hopeful, and references to meekness, forgiveness, lambs and sheep, and so forth. This distinction is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead. First presaged by the rantings of John the Baptist, the son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inattentive to everlasting fire. This had provided texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lip-smackingly in the tirades of Islam. At no point did Dr. King—who was once photagraphed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest—even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.
[God Is Not Great, pp. 175-176]
So MLK could not possibly have been a Christian because he wasn’t vindictive enough.
I already knew that Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and other “New Atheists,” demonstrate no real understanding of religion, judging it entirely by its most viciously stupid (and unfortunately, loudest) examples. And I knew that they are fond of the rhetorical trick of defining terms such as “religion” and “Christian” and “atheist” so that anyone they (and their intended audience) admires is classed among the irreligious. But this is even more than I had expected. When the result of a line of argument is that patently absurd, you have to wonder about the arguer.
Where to start? There are some genuinely interesting and subtle specifics in there about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and the milieu in which Jesus and the evangelists lived, and about the links between the old and new testaments. But I’ll ignore those for the moment, and hope to come back to them in a later post. For now I’ll just mention that even among the most literal of literalists the relationship of what sacred tests actually say and what people believe and how they act is subtle. Yes, Christianity does have a long and deplorable tradition of condemning heretics to Hell. It has an equally long and altogether admirable tradition of forgiveness. Yes, Jesus said “Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell,” but he also said “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and “Turn the other cheek.” Mainline Christians (whom Hitchens et al seem to regard as irrelevant and somewhere between pathetic and contemptible) tend to ignore the hellfire bits altogether now, and in my experience evangelicals and fundamentalists (real ones, not televangelists) value forgiveness and love, not vindictiveness and schadenfreude. They are genuinely concerned with the welfare of your soul, annoying as that can be. The possibility of your spending eternity in a lake of fire is something that bothers them, not something they exult in. They genuinely mean it when they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Hitchens goes on to say that
This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife. He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him. (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high more character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)
It should be noted here that Hitchens is generally fond of vice, and so this paragraph is not necessarily the insult it sounds like. And he actually has a point about goodness and greatness, and saints with feet of clay—whatever the truth of the allegations about King (which I feel a bit bad quoting). Perfect saints are boring and not terribly interesting, and are not useful as role models.
Now I should mention here that Hitchens himself doesn’t really believe what he says, or at least he has himself said the opposite. (I’m not sure he can be said to believe in anything, and he is admirably unbound by any foolish consistency.) In his review of Ann Coulter’s screed Godless, he says in response to her equation of liberalism and Godlessness and to her “crass choice” of the word “lynching”:
The umbrella group in this campaign was even called the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’, not that this prevented many secularists and atheists from participating in it. Finally, I think we can safely say that Dr Martin Luther King “appeared” to believe in god.
Hitchens is an enormously entertaining writer, even when—especially when, come to think of it—he is at his most vitriolic and infuriating. In that he is not unlike a saner and more literate (if less leggy) Ann Coulter (do read that review, which is funny). But don’t take anything he says seriously without a heavy dose of critical thinking and fact-checking. Perhaps he would tell you the same thing.