What Christopher Hitchens Refused to Know

 

When writing about literature, my late friend Christopher Hitchens demonstrated a basic generosity of spirit combined with flawless judgment. On politics, Hitch got it right, I always felt, about half the time–and that half often enough required him to demonstrate real bravery, defying fellow members of the Left. But on religion? Hitch could be unfair–willfully so–and quite capable of presenting as fresh and new arguments that had grown stale a century ago. What I hadn’t quite realized, though, was that Hitch was also deeply ignorant–in particular, that in discussing the scriptures Hitch simply had no idea what he was talking about.

I hadn’t quite realized this, I say, until looking at “Christopher Hitchens’ lies do atheism no favors,”an article by Curtis White that appeared today on the website of Salon–and that in turn referred to “Christopher Hitchens on the Bible,” a long and completely engrossing review of Hitch’s book, God is Not Great, by William J. Hamblin.

One of many passages in which Hamblin, marshaling Biblical scholarship, demonstrates that Hitch had failed to perform even the most rudimentary homework:

IsraelStele.jpgIn discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.

Setting aside the fact that Egyptian chronicles almost never mention the defeat of a pharaoh–a fact that demonstrates, by the way, the superiority of biblical historicity with its very flawed and human kings–Egyptian chronicles do, in fact, mention nascent Israel in the famous “Israel Stele”…now in the Cairo National Museum.  It has been widely translated and photographed, and it is astonishing that Hitchens is unaware of it….

The Hamblin article is, as I say engrossing–and so full of erudition that it represents something of a biblical education in itself. If you have the time to read it in full, you’ll see that by the end there is very little left of Hitch’s arguments–but that the Bible he so denigrated remains entirely worthy of study and, indeed, awe.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @Astonishing

    When Hitchens was dying, it so happened that I was also pretty close to dying of cancer myself. (I’m better now–not completely out of the woods, but in that state we in the cancer biz tremulously refer to as NED.) At the time when Hitchens and I were in our parallel cancer adventure and both staring at death, it made me feel deeply sorry for him that he could not feel the solace I felt, the comfort that God, a good God, cared about my suffering. I am not a religious person, probably not a Christian. I did not expect God to cure me. I did not ever ask Him to cure me because that seemed selfish. My only prayer was, “God help me! God help us all!” That was the only prayer i had the confidence to say. Yet saying that prayer gave me strength to accept my fate, whatever it might be. It freed me to embrace life, to live my life fully even in the midst of such a terrible time. God, a good God, comforted my soul. I wish Hitch had felt that. I hope he did find that comfort before he died.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @Cris

    Peter Collier — who, by the way, would make an excellent guest on the Ricochet Podcast — wrote a terrific article on Hitchens in The New Criterion titled, “Christopher, for Better & for Worse“.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall — it didn’t used to be.  But it’s worth a read if you are a subscriber or don’t mind paying to view it.  The opening paragraph:

    After his death, I was struck by how many people used the phrase “my friend” in their remembrances of Christopher Hitchens. It shows how clubbable he was, despite the terrible swift sword he was unable to leave for long in its scabbard, and also how formidable were his seductive powers. Christopher never hid his intention to use people as the surfaces on which he intended to leave a fingerprint, and most of the time he made sure that this impression was a keepsake with lasting value.

    That wonderful, Collieresque phrase, “the terrible swift sword he was unable to leave for long in its scabbard” captures an important aspect of Hitchens’ personality.  

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @Tuck

    In point of fact, Hamblin is wrong in his example, and Hitchens correct. Hamblin quotes Hitchens thus:

    “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land…. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . “”

    Hamblin mentions the Israel Stele, but doesn’t quote it, which I found odd.  So I looked it up.  What the stele says concerning Israel is:

    “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;”

    No mention of Moses there.  Did Hitchens ever claim that the ancient Israelis didn’t exist, or just Moses?  If he claimed the latter, then Hamblin is being a bit disingenuous, as what Hamblin cites does not support his claim that Hitchens is wrong. 

    I’m no fan of Hitchens or his arguments, btw; but like to see a straight argument made.For Hitchens argument, many historical episodes have limited to no support in the literature, as there’s very little literature. And one wouldn’t expect the Pharoahs to report their defeats in their propaganda…
    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    Mike H

    Peter Robinson

    That won’t do, I don’t think, Mike, on two counts.  The first is that Hitch himself showed no quarter for the dead, calling Reagan, for example, “reptilian.”  The second and more important count is this:  As Hitch himself would have insisted, his arguments have an existence independent of his own.  If they’re valid, they’ll live on. If not, they’ll fall.  And it doesn’t matter when one examines them, before or after his death. · 9 minutes ago

    Point taken, but it really was just a wish that he was still here because I would love to experience the conversation. · 7 hours ago

    Fair enough–and I wish he were still here, too

    • #4
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    @PeterRobinson

    Re the several posts that mention the Israel Stele:  Hamblin’s argument, to quote him again, is that Hitch “failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of biblical traditions.”  The Israel Stele represents just that, evidence, not proof–and it represents just a single example among dozens in which Hitch failed to demonstrate any knowledge at all of biblical scholarship.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Spin

    I never met Christopher Hitchens, but I have a Hitch in my own life.  In most respects a great guy, but he seems to have made it his life’s mission to prove there is no God.  That by itself isn’t really so bad.  But he does so with a condescension that is annoying, and sometimes personally offensive.  Presenting stale arguments as if they were somehow fresh and new is exactly what he does, and maybe because he was always reading Hitchens work.  He, my friend, seems to go out of his way to ignore good Christian men and women and instead point to more modern examples of religious hypocrisy  such as the Crusaders.  It seems he is willfully ignorant of what Christians really believe, and what the Bible teaches.  It’ helps a person to maintain their worldview if they ignore any credible reasoning in the opposite direction.  

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson

    Cont’d from post #21….

    In the passage I quote, Hamblin’s more important point is that Hitch seems completely unaware of the work of modern scholars, including that of James Hoffmeier.  I’m no Biblical scholar, but I just spent a moment on Kindle looking over Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt:  The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition.  The book seems everything Hitch’s isn’t–scholarly, judicious, and, an important point, thoroughly footnoted, permitting readers to trace arguments and evidence for themselves.  Hoffmeier’s central contention:

    [T]here is presently no know direct evidence for Israel’s presence in the Nile Delta during the second millennium.  This silence has resulted in the historical minimalists, for the most part, ignoring the available indirect evidence.  It is my contention, and the purpose of this book, that in the absence of direct archaeological or historical evidence, one can make a case for the plausibility of the biblical reports based on the supporting evidence.

    No direct evidence, but plenty of indirect evidence–and this in a book published by the Oxford University Press.  As Hamblin notes, Hitch seems utterly unaware of the book’s existence.

    Now?  Back to the beach.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @Cordelia

    My MacAfee is identifying the Maxwell site as “malicious”  and “dangerous.” (Whoa! Are you sure you want to go there? … may be risky to visit.”) Is anybody else getting this warning? I’ve asked for a review, but I can’t imagine what is so risky about a religious studies/educational institute. Kinda bizarre.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @LeslieWatkins

    I listened to dozens of interviews/debates between Hitchens and Christians, and most found him to be an honorable broker, however tough. I heard of the Israel stele in divinity school back in 1991-92, and my wonderful (conservative, believing Christian) OT and NT professor merely mentioned it, telling us students that the evidence is a mixed bag. He told future pastors that this was a great difficulty they must confront head-on: Paul and Jesus were wrong in preaching that the end was near. First Thessalonians (one of the oldest NT writings) is Paul’s attempt to deal with the problem of years having passed without the parousia, or the return of Christ, having taken place (a reality causing the church to become the apocalyptic body). This, I think, is the basis of Hithens’s point: evangelize if you must, but do not assert faith as fact, and do not expect/force him to follow. I also completely disagree that he bashed the Bible; he constantly asserted knowledge of it as inseparable from being an educated person. To me, his blind spot was not in taking the church to task, but in not subjecting the state to equal derision. 

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @BrianWatt

    Wait just a minute, Peter. To support a general argument it needs to be based on specific examples, doesn’t it? Who brought up the Israel Stele in the first place?

    It is not evidence in the specific context that Hamblin seeks to use it, that Moses existed and led a large contingent of Israelites out of Egypt. The Stele doesn’t speak of Moses or that event at all and only makes a passing reference to a location, or people or ruler that the Pharaoh may have decimated that some scholars, not all, claim is Israel.

    In Hamblin’s mind, Hitchens completely ignores the Stele as some sort of evidence of Moses’ existence even suggesting Hitch was unaware of it. How does he know that Hitch was unaware of it? Perhaps Hitchens was quite familiar with the ancient tablet but found it sadly lacking as any evidence to suggest that Moses existed or that the flight out of Egypt happened and simply chose not to cite it. 

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    Brian Watt: Wait just a minute, Peter. To support a general argument it needs to be based on specific examples, doesn’t it? Who brought up the Israel Stele in the first place? · 14 minutes ago

    Edited 9 minutes ago

    Methinks you’re making too much of the Israel Stele, Brian. 

    a)  Hamblin uses it merely to refute Hitch’s assertion that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing….”  The Israel Stele, Hamblin notes, is an Egyptian chronicle that many scholars believe does mention Israel in passing.

    b)  Hamblin’s article, to which I linked, runs to several thousand words.  It provides many instances in which Hitch either proves ignorant of Biblical scholarship or very crudely misunderstands it.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    Leslie Watkins: I listened to dozens of interviews/debates between Hitchens and Christians, and most found him to be an honorable broker, however tough… I also completely disagree that he bashed the Bible; he constantly asserted knowledge of it as inseparable from being an educated person. To me, his blind spot was not in taking the church to task, but in not subjecting the state to equal derision.  · 30 minutes ago

    Oh, but it pains me to disagree with you, Leslie, but disagree I must:

    a)  I conducted one of those interviews with Hitch.  Although he produced his usual charm and volubility, his thinking proved very, very thin.  In particular, he proved, to my mind, at least, incapable of showing how he derived his sense of moral order, of right and wrong, if not, at least indirectly, from religious ideals.  (I can’t quote him precisely at this remove, but he simply shut down the line of questioning, saying he found it offensive for anyone to suggest atheists couldn’t be moral.  Of course no one was suggesting any such thing.  In other words, he merely attempt to slip out of the argument using intellectual sleight-of-hand.)

    And…

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Contributor
    @MollieHemingway
    Mike H: Though Hitch’s least important (and perhaps lowest quality) work was that on Atheism, it is quite a shame that this argument couldn’t be brought forth while he was here to defend himself. · 9 hours ago

    I love Hitch and yet the flaws with God Is Not Great were so obvious and many, that it made me question all his other writing. He was corrected at the time on many points and, to his credit, he corrected some of the problems. The embarrassing stuff about Jews having to have sex with a sheet inbetween the lovers comes to mind most readily.

    But again, that book was riddled with errors. I have no theological training (though I do write about religion) and across every religion, he took the most extraordinary things ever said or written about each and put it down as the Gospel truth.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson

    And, continuing my note to Leslie,  b) as for Hitch’s bashing of the Bible, your really must read the Hamblin article in full.  (My post quoted only one brief passage of an article that must run to 2,000 or so words.)

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @genferei

    It is a pity that Curtis White picks that particular example from Hamblin’s review (and that Peter picks that picked example from White).

    Both White’s article (despite containing such gems as “is our own passionate approval of the most massively destructive social system in human history—capitalism and capitalist militarism—an expression of conscience?”) and Hamblin’s are worth reading. The Israel Stele example is probably the weakest of the many points made.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @BrianWatt
    Peter Robinson

    Brian Watt: Wait just a minute, Peter. To support a general argument it needs to be based on specific examples, doesn’t it? Who brought up the Israel Stele in the first place? 

    Methinks you’re making too much of the Israel Stele, Brian. 

    a)  Hamblin uses it merely to refute Hitch’s assertion that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing….”  The Israel Stele, Hamblin notes, is an Egyptian chronicle that many scholars believedoesmention Israel in passing.

    b)  Hamblin’s article, to which I linked, runs to several thousand words.  It provides manyinstances in which Hitch either proves ignorant of Biblical scholarship or very crudely misunderstands it. 

    Well, it is cited above in your post with a lovely photo of it as an example of Hitchens’ dismissiveness. I admit I do have a nasty habit of discussing what’s put in front of me. Does Hitchens ever challenge the existence of the Israelites?

    What methinks is that you could have extracted a better example to prove your point instead of pushing to the forefront something so weak as Hamblin’s use of the Israel Stele.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @swatter

    I think Hitch is more like the Doubting Thomas. What you can’t see and doesn’t appear real is therefore, not real.

    There is no ‘proof’ that a God exists, except that there just has to be. While I am, too, a Doubting Thomas in many aspects, I am too simple to thing I can wrestle mentally with these issues. I just believe and accept.

    Listening to so-call atheists (I don’t believe Hitchens was one deep down) bolsters my faith more so than any fire and brimstone preacher or a Christ-like role model (though few and far between).

    There was a Washington State US Senate candidate a few years ago (Libertarian) who was an atheist. He got on a political blog and wrote his struggles with a “God”. My heart went out to him as he was thinking way too much.

    Being an atheist is hard work and requires ignoring Nature and creation.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @
    This is the first time I’ve commented on Hitchens, but from what I read and saw I always suspected he was a sociopath. Perhaps you need to have had one in your life to spot them.I could never understand why he was so popular when proven so illogical, wrong and out-right lying  on ‘some’ issues. To me that precluded a hearing on anything he had to say. Why bother?I hope, and believe it’s possible, he repented before dying. 
    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    genferei: It is a pity that Curtis White picks that particular example from Hamblin’s review (and that Peter picks that picked example from White).

    Both White’s article…and Hamblin’s are worth reading. The Israel Stele example is probably the weakest of the many points made. · 

    At this point, genferei, I’m with you:  I wish to goodness Hamblin had never mentioned the dratted Israel Stele.  Not that it’s all that weak a point–the mere mention of Israel in a chronicle dating from the second millenium B.C. represents a staggering historical find, even if it describes an Egyptian campaign in Canaan and not the exodus.  But good Lord.  Has the stele ever served as a distraction in this discussion.

    Come to think of it, I almost wish I had never mentioned Hitch.  Quite apart from his refutation of God is Not Great, Hamblin presents a really fascinating review of contemporary biblical scholarship.  (I myself, for example, was unaware of the arguments placing the earliest gospels within a few decades of Christ.)

    Forget the darned stele, everybody–and forget I mentioned Hitch.  But read Hamblin all the same.

    Now I really am going to the beach.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @BrianWatt
    Peter Robinson

     

    At this point, genferei, I’m with you:  I wish to goodness Hamblin had never mentioned the dratted Israel Stele.  Not that it’s allthatweak a point–the mere mention of Israel in a chronicle dating from the second millenium B.C. represents a staggering historical find, even if it describes an Egyptian campaign in Canaan and not the exodus.  But good Lord.  Has the stele ever served as a distraction in this discussion.

    Come to think of it, I almost wish I had never mentioned Hitch.  Quite apart from his refutation ofGod is Not Great, Hamblin presents a really fascinating review of contemporary biblical scholarship.  (I myself, for example, was unaware of the arguments placing the earliest gospels within a few decades of Christ.)

    Forget the darned stele, everybody–and forget I mentioned Hitch.  But read Hamblin all the same.

    Now I really am going to the beach. 

    Well, just take lots of sunscreen. It seems that sometimes the sun just stays in one place for an inordinate amount of time, almost as though it was standing still. :-) All the best.

    • #20
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    @DaveCarter

    Peter, have one of those drinks with the umbrella and high octane happy stuff while you’re at it. I started the Hamblin piece last night, and will try to finish it today. Very interesting work, and thanks for steering me to it,

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member
    @WesternChauvinist

    Fr. Robert Barron spoke at the Catholic Media Conference in Denver on Wednesday. For those who don’t know him, Fr. Barron is the creator and host of the Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith television/DVD series. He’s a respected theologian, scholar, writer, philosopher, leader of the New Evangelization, and Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary/University in Illinois. He’s also one who delighted in listening to and reading Christopher Hitchens. See his YouTube about it here.

    Barron told the story of being interviewed on one of the networks wherein the subject of Hitchens came up. At the last, the interviewer said to Fr. Barron, “Well, Father, you have to admit, at least Hitchens got the Church thinking about these things for the first time…”

    That neatly encapsulates fatal flaw of the New Atheists and Hitchens in particular, and perhaps describes the curse of his superior intellect. That fatal conceit that the ideas they’re wrestling with and drawing conclusions about are “truth” and “new” because they’ve thought of them. The product of which is what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery.

    Before I’m accused of arguing from authority…

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Spin

    I’m having trouble reading pas this gem:

    “Our own religious right is real, and international fundamentalism is dangerous and frightening, especially for the sad people who must live with it.”

    Am I being compared to Islamic terrorists here?  

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Member
    @WesternChauvinist

    …let me just say it is factually untrue that there’s anything new about the New Atheists, or that the religious controversies they promote are things the Church, as a body, has never dealt with before.

    They’re smart guys — they’re just wrong and out of their league on the subject when put up against Ireneaus, Augustine, and Aquinas among others. [I know, sounds like a-from-a, but not enough words to describe Aquinas’ ipsum esse subsistens, Augustinian anthropology, and Ireneaus’ doctrine of God.]

    I’m gobsmacked by their inability to see the indirect evidence — the absolute hinge of history which is the life of Christ on which the West (and therefore the world) swings. If it’s myth, it’s had disproportionate power and influence in history, and over the lives of individuals.

    I’m with Barron. Hitchens was a deeply religious man, as evidenced by his passion for justice. Too bad he didn’t know it.

    [Leslie, the Church teaches that Jesus was referring to the “tribulation” surrounding “the end” of the Temple in 70 AD. I don’t mean to start an argument, only to assert that, with this understanding, he was not wrong.]

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @WBob

    People like Hitchens have always been on shaky ground when they try to challenge the historical accuracy of the Bible.  After all the Bible is largely a history book and therefore it’s likely to be as accurate, or not, as any other history written in the ancient world.  So it shouldn’t be expected to stand out from other works in terms of historical accuracy one way or the other. 

    Where they are on stronger ground is in pointing out that there is nothing in the Bible (or any other religious tradition or book) that cannot be explained as a projection of the human mind at the time it was written, based on the knowledge that humans had at that time.  There is literally nothing in any human writing, tradition, or religion that requires a higher intelligence to have revealed it.  For example, in the Bible there’s literally nothing you can point to that is inexplicable based on human knowledge of the time, which means that either there was no higher intelligence inspring the Bible, or else it inspired the writers in a way that was completely subjective and thus unverifiable.     

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Member
    @ColinBLane

    I got stuck on that word “Refused” in the title of your post, Peter. Perhaps a post for another day (when you’re not at the beach):

    How much of Atheism is a refusal — an active, willful denial of the possibility of God that force feeds facts into a negative narrative vs. how much of Atheism is simply derivative — a conclusion one reaches after diligent search and questioning but which is always open to a positive narrative.

    I’m not phrasing it well, but I hope you get the gist. 

    • #26
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    @dittoheadadt

    Is no one curious to know, what beach?

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @MikeH
    Western Chauvinist: 

    I’m gobsmacked by their inability to see the indirect evidence — the absolute hinge of history which is the life of Christ on which the West (and therefore the world) swings. If it’s myth, it’s had disproportionate power and influence in history, and over the lives of individuals.

    I dislike the “New Atheists.” Their certainty betrays the intellectual exercise they believe they are engaging in.

    I will say there is another way to interpret the hinge of history. By seeing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, among other popular Eastern Religions, as highly-ordered philosophical organisms, their disproportionate power argues for their evolutionary superiority.

    They have become so powerful because they are ideas that replicate and evolve among populations extremely well.

    This is not an argument against their validity, but a way of viewing it that doesn’t require condescending certainty.

    • #28
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    @PeterRobinson
    dittoheadadt: Is no one curious to know, what beach? · 7 minutes ago

    The endless, perfect beaches of the south fork of the Long Island, between, to be a little more specific, Moriches and Shinnecock bays.

    • #29
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    @BereketKelile

    I’m with Peter-before he left for the beach. This reminds me of the shallow thinking of Richard Dawkins as well. He too lacks a basic familiarity, it seems, with the bible and with the philosophical arguments made for God. For example, he often says that theists believe everything has a cause, which leads to the problem of an infinite regression. He doesn’t understand that the argument is that only effects have causes, not everything. Or he often asks who created God. 

    It just goes to show that anger can cloud one’s judgment and lead people to say and do things they normally would not do. I don’t think Hitchens had the rabid anger of Dawkins. He seemed to be able to read people and I think his beliefs were shaped, in part, by his experiences. He’d bash religion even as he admired those he knew to be authentic believers. 

    But, as the psalmist says, the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    • #30

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