Stuart Reid Charterhouse
Christopher Hitchens was given the last rites at the Festival Hall last week, when, led by Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, thousands paid homage to the great polemicist. The tone was hagiographical, oleaginous; this was unction at its most extreme.
In all about 10,000 people watched the event, 2,500 in the hall itself, and the rest in cinemas or (on the night or later) through a computer/television link. A further 28,000 watched the highlights. It did not exactly go viral, in other words. The audience looked pretty good to me. They were well-fed, well-educated, well-heeled and well chuffed, and they laughed on cue. What would 2,500 Christians look like? If you view the world through the eyes of Fry and Dawkins, you can see them quite clearly: fearful, narrow and stupid; many dressed badly, some with skin complaints, others with painfully obvious mental issues; the vast majority of them carrying sandwiches, flasks of tea and prayer books (or, in the case of Protestants, Bibles) in plastic shopping bags.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The big disappointment of the night was that Christopher Hitchens himself was not there, as the Intelligence Squared, the organisers, had originally intended. Hitchens was to have been “in conversation” with Stephen Fry by satellite link from Texas, where he is being treated for his cancer. However, he had pneumonia on the night, and was not well enough to take part in his own obsequies. In his place, the satellite link brought us, among others, Sean Penn, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis.
The assembled stars told some good jokes, but this was serious stuff. Fry and Dawkins do not believe in being nice for the sake of being nice. Truth is too important for that. Perhaps Dawkins got to the heart of the matter when he declared: “Let’s stop being so damned respectful!” Very well, then, Pretty Boy. Readers of The Catholic Herald will no doubt remember what the great Terry Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books a few years ago: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.” At the Festival Hall last Wednesday night there was a good example of this (culpable) lack of understanding when Dawkins declared: “If you know where somebody stands on the death penalty, say, you will immediately know were they stand on abortion.” Dawkins’s belief is that, “paradoxically”, pro-life means pro-capital punishment. This paradox has not escaped the rest of us: there are indeed some very bloodthirsty and disagreeable pro-life people. But the Church herself is opposed to both abortion and the death penalty (even if her thinking on the death penalty isn’t binding on the faithful). She is also opposed to war. And here we arrive at the real paradox, the real irony. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were against the war in Iraq. So were Dawkins and Fry. Christopher Hitchens, however, was violently in favour of it. Dawkins and Fry, therefore, supported John Paul and Benedict, while Hitchens supported George W Bush and Sarah Palin.
Then there is the smugness of the New Atheists, and their astonishing lack of doubt. Both were on display at the Festival Hall last week. Firmly they believe and truly that religious belief is irredeemably stupid. Dawkins and Fry do not need Cardinal Newman’s reassurance that a thousand difficulties do not make a doubt because they do not even have difficulties. They are true disbelievers. As for smugness, Stephen Fry – Lord Fry of Whimsy, to his friends – is perhaps better at it than Dawkins, but that may not be his own fault; he may just have been born that way. Look at his chin, look at his pursed lips, and you will see fastidious disapproval. The whole package comes wrapped in bogus self-deprecation.
The New Atheists are not quite as laid back as they would like us to believe, however, and in spite of their smugness they are at times quite as paranoid as funda mentalist Christians. The New Atheists believe that “the tide of the enlightenment is being rolled back” (as Fry put it last week), and that secular, free-thinking Humanism is under threat from the massed forces of religion; that is, from darkness, cruelty, ignorance and spite.
What can you say? If I were a Humanist and freethinker, I hope I’d have the grace to acknowledge the advances that have been made in recent years, not least under David Cameron. The Prime Minister is all for religion in its respectable, kiddy-friendly manifestations – Nativity plays and Advent calendars – but is a card-carrying liberal progressive when it comes to traditional values. He now supports gay marriage “because I am a conservative”. There was another treat for the atheists this week when in New York on Tuesday night Slate/Intelligence Squared debated the motion “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion”, and the motion was carried by 59 per cent to 31 per cent, with 10 per cent undecided.
And yet, and yet... I’d rather spend time in the company of Fry, Dawkins and Hitchens than in the company of, say, Pat Robertson and his pals. I rather like Dawkins and a couple of years ago Fry earned my unstinting admiration for saying that the MPs’ expenses story was being overplayed, and that anyway it was a bit rich that journalists should be banging on about expenses swindles. As for Christopher Hitchens, let us continue to pray for him. He can take it. His courage over the past year and more has been exemplary, and courage is a virtue.
In the end, though, there is something sad about the professional atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens and Fry. Last month I read on the New Statesman website that Hitchens had just appeared at the “Atheist Alliance of America” convention in Houston, Texas, where he had collected the “Richard Dawkins Freethinker of the Year Award”.
There’s glory for you. What did these people do with their sense of the absurd?