Christopher Hitchens is Not Great

Self-sealing Fallacy

Some modern militant atheists like to claim things like “religion ruins everything.” Or that the planet would be so much better off without a belief in God. An obvious response is to point at the horrors perpetrated by explicitly atheistic political movements in the twentieth century to claim that actually, things get much worse – atheism ruins everything.

Some atheists have attempted a rebuttal. This is the idea that Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong were not “real” atheists, communism and fascism are not genuinely atheistic, and neither were their followers, and that their ill-deeds cannot be laid at the feet of atheism. The first time I encountered it, I incorrectly imagined it was just one person’s confusion. Apparently, this is not so.

Christopher Hitchens advances the argument in the above clips.

It is a nice example of the self-sealing fallacy – also known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

A Scotsman reads of a horrific rape and murder in London and tells his wife that no Scotsman would do such a thing. Subsequently, it is discovered that the rapist/murderer is John McDonald of Aberdeen. The Scotsman replies that no “true” Scotsman would do such a thing, thereby making himself immune to counterexample.

The fallacy involves someone making an empirical claim, then refuted with an empirical counterexample, then the original claim is converted into a tautology, making it immune to counterexample. Tautologies are true by definition, not as matters of fact. Bachelors are unmarried men by definition.

Hitchens and other new atheists make an empirical claim – human affairs would have proceeded much better if religion had never existed. A counter-example is then provided. There have in fact been large-scale political movements based on explicitly atheist principles. The result was between 100 and 200 million deaths. It turns out that religion probably has an ameliorating effect on human behavior.

So, a factual claim is met with a factual rebuttal. The fallacy then involves showing that the counter-example is not a real counter-example. Hitchens’ argument is that communism and fascism are not real atheistic movements because their leaders came to be viewed as being godlike and their followers proceeded to worship them; i.e., the atheism in the counter-example is not “real” atheism. This converts the original factual claim into a tautology – something that is true due to the meaning of words. The original claim is then true by definition and immune to counterexample.

The new atheist is right. The atheistic political movements that have occurred have adopted features of pagan religion. It turns out that this is what happened when this was attempted. The religious impulse seems to be ineradicable. If it cannot find an outlet in God, it will erect a substitute, known as idolatry. If not God, then the greatest happiness for the greatest number, progress, science, the Enlightenment, social justice, the singularity, immortality via computers, will take His place. Human beings need something to worship and they need a larger meaning. Without it they sink into depression, nihilism and, potentially, suicide.

Berdyaev writes that “Without the idea of God there can be no idea of man.” If man does not share in the divine nature and possess ultimate value, then some value will be held to be higher than man, and man will be treated as a means to an end; an expendable nothing of no supreme importance to be used as a pawn in the name of creating “happiness,” the social good, the well-being of Mother Russia or the Fatherland.

The ubiquity of the religious impulse is an empirical claim about how human beings work. It is well-supported by the evidence. Hitchens, Dawkins and the others have the aim and ambitions of religious proselytizers out to convert the masses and to save them. If they did actually get rid of God, they would not know what to do with themselves. They are as God-fixated as the most fanatical religious zealot.

Communist sympathizers sometimes argue that “real” communism has not been tried because Marx’s fantasy was that after a brief dictatorship of the proletariat, pure, blissful anarchic living was to emerge, where the state and the military were no longer necessary. This never ever happened. It never happened because communism as dreamed of by Marx is a fantasy.

Two results of atheism have been communism and fascism. Atheists, generally speaking, it turns out are unable to remove their religious tendencies and they find substitutes. The substitutes turn out to be much worse than the real thing. With no God in heaven, we come to treat our fellow man as gods and resent them for it. With no God to worship, we worship money, or success, or something else. This is what atheism looks like in practice. Without Christianity and official religion, we just revert back to pagan behavior – not consistent, thorough-going nonreligion.

Atheism would be a great boon. Communism and Fascism? They are not real atheism because those things are not a great boon. They are a pagan religious nightmare. Correct! Now you are starting to get it!

Hitchens et al could be interpreted as saying that were it humanly possible to truly eradicate the religious impulse even from the hearts of atheists like him, this would be a great boon. Since this would involve removing ourselves from the human condition, this will have to remain an unprovable counterfactual. We do not know what an individual non-suicidal person would look like under such a description. On a mass scale we just find religion substitutes such as the passion for “social justice” followed with the utmost zealotry by some and the return of pre-Christian pagan scapegoating. An atheistic society that does not devolve into politically correct conformity, where academics must overtly embrace “diversity and inclusion” to be hired, in the same way that Oxford university used to require attestations of religious adherence, and the scapegoating of the successful, is an unknown phenomenon. It seems likely that it cannot exist. Certainly, it has never existed.

The real, complicated history of Man’s relationship to religion

It is true that the history of humanity contains all sorts of very brutal behavior. Religion is likely to be involved in many instances at least in part because all human cultures have had religious foundations without exception. This would suggest that the existence of human culture is thanks to religion. René Girard argues this – though it comes about through the false sacred. A scapegoat is credited with sowing universal destruction, and thus God-like power, and then murdered. His murder unites the mutually antagonistic parties creating peace, again in a God-like fashion. Christianity reveals the scapegoat mechanism for the first time in human history but awareness of the mechanism is partial at best and has taken a long time to enter human consciousness on a wider scale. Thanks to the reduced cultural significance of Christianity, in tandem with social media, we are seeing one sacrificial crisis after another with an ever-expanding list of corpses as the flash mobs descend on one person after another to disembowel them.

Scapegoat victims are neither demons nor gods. Human culture arose from their innocent bones. This is highly unpleasant to say the least. The victims should not be forgotten and we should do our best not to repeat this behavior. The question then becomes, can humans unite on the basis of love instead of hatred and not let mutual antagonism get out of hand? It might be that Christianity means the end of human culture.

Atheists bond together in shared hatred of theists and vice versa.

History is an odd discipline because it cries out for counterfactual experimentation. For example, some historians like to blame the Treaty of Versailles for WWII. At most it might have been a necessary condition, but obviously it was not sufficient. To test this claim it would be necessary to remove the Treaty and see what happens. The new atheists would need to do something similar with religion.

Human beings have a strong tendency to be violent because we imitate each other including other people’s desires and this puts us in competition with them. We become rivals – twin brothers. A key myth is of Cain and Abel. One brother makes an effort and is met with success. The other brother tries hard and fails. Cain looks at Abel in resentment – the key human sin. Resentment combines love and hatred. Cain wants to be Abel – but there is an obstacle – a stumbling block, a scandal, called Abel. Abel is already Abel. He occupies the space that Cain wants. Cain wants Abel’s being. Frustrated and resentful, Cain kills Abel.

Resentment is not an invention of religion. The false sacred creates the scapegoat mechanism in order to solve outbreaks of violence that otherwise would spiral out of control with no logical end – e.g., centuries long feuds. True religion reveals this mechanism in an act of revelation – Jesus’ crucifixion; the murder of the innocent victim.

False religion is a solution to an aspect of the human condition. Thus there are reasons for thinking that the history of humanity would have been much worse without religion. Since wherever humans go, religion goes with them, the two will be associated. The claim is that, as hard as it is to imagine, things would have gone worse without it.

A crucial point of contention between theists and atheists is what happens when organized religion ceases and the idea of God as the focus of worship is abandoned.

There is no evidence that atheism is sustainable on a large scale for any length of time.

Jews and Christians claim that man is made in the image of God. He has an immortal soul and participates in creative activity by wresting order out of chaos, finding the good, the true and the beautiful. Theists have faith that the universe and life have meaning and purpose. They must then find the meaning that can justify the suffering that is a necessary part of the existence of a finite being.

The sacredness of human life and of creation then become the basis for a workable morality and moral realism; God or moral nihilism. If this is true, an atheist who uses morality as a standard by which to accuse religion of being evil is helping himself to something inaccessible by his own lights.

Marxism as a bastardized, atheistic Christianity

Socialism is not merely an economic theory. It is in active competition with theism (as of course is atheism).

Karl Marx simply restated the Judeo-Christian emphasis on compassion for the weak, the poor and the suffering while introducing two evil innovations. One was to make any help for the poor to be a matter of state compulsion with massive taxation and redistribution of wealth from the successful to the unsuccessful undermining the incentive to work hard and succeed. Russian communists took evidence of success as a sign that a person was an oppressor and murdered the Kulaks, successful, hardworking peasants, as the first order of business. And indeed, communism reduces all to relative poverty as could be seen with East vs West Germany. Social justice warriors follow this same logic with predictably similar results.

Thus Marxism succumbs to the Three Temptations of Christ as described in the Bible and by Dostoevsky. In the Brothers Karamazov, Jesus refuses earthly power and to feed the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis. Such a state of affairs would make the poor beholden to the state to which they would willingly sacrifice their freedom for the promise of free food. Christianity, properly understood, involves complete freedom.

Marxism also reinstates scapegoating as a central tenet.  Myths take the point of view of the mob; true religion, of the victim. The proletariat are the mob and the bourgeoisie are the victims. The persecution of the innocent is thus built into the system. When this fails to unify the populace in shared hatred for long, new classes of enemy, “enemies of the revolution,” are found and the scapegoating continues on an industrial scale.

Thus Marxism explicitly rejects religion as the opium of the people while returning us to pre-Christian scapegoating and taking volunteeristic charity and creating a giant bureaucracy reducing the population to servitude in the name of fairness and equality. It is a bastardized religion.

In Russia, with no God to worship, Stalin promoted himself and was treated as man as God. Likewise with Chinese communism and Mao Zedong.

German fascism also competed with religion. It adopted features from pre-Christian paganism – namely the creepy slogan of “blood and soil” and the scapegoating of Jews. It too was socialist and nationalized industry. Since the Jews tended to be very socially successful, they could be accused of belonging to the oppressor class just like the communists’ bourgeoisie.

Contemporary atheists engage in all sorts of religion substitutes. Ray Kurzweil rejects a Christian afterlife but does not give up on the Christian hope for eternal life. He is as obsessed with immortality as the most true believer but with computers as the medium for downloading his consciousness. Personally, I find nothing good, true or beautiful about his ambitions.


43 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens is Not Great

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I have to confess that I was not able to stomach more than a few minutes of the first youtube, but I have been exposed to Hitchens’ ideas often enough by my atheist brother who at one time was determined to “convert” me.
    I have never quite been able to understand the evangelistic zeal of so many atheists. Whence their passion? If they believe that thoughts and ideas are just the result of so many molecular or chemical movements in the brain–that there is and can be no such thing as Truth–then are they claiming that their molecules moved correctly while mine moved incorrectly? And what could “correctly” possibly mean in their universe, devoid as it is of purpose, meaning, or any kind of telos?

    • @Roger – Thank you. I too had to grit my teeth to get through most of Hitchens. I agree that some atheists have the earnest conviction of a door-knocking Mormon. The illogic of the determinist atheists can be painful. I once had a long philosophical written debate on the topic with someone who eventually confessed that he did not believe persuasion is actually possible.

      • I read something by D.B. Hart (in his The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss) that would seem to answer my own question:

        “Even the materialist who ardently clings to his or her absurd system of belief thereby exhibits the piety of mind responsive to the summons of the transcendent. The atheist who proudly and persistently strives to convince others that there is no God does so out of a devotion to the absolute, to the highest of values, to the divine … If one refuses to believe in God out of one’s love of truth, one affirms the reality of God in that very act of rejection. Whatever image of God one abjures, it can never be more than an idol: a god, but not God; a theos, but not ho Theos; a being, not Being in its transcendent fullness.” (p. 250)
        “The least gesture of the will toward a moral end, no matter how vehemently one may insist otherwise, is necessarily a natural longing for God.” (p. 254)

        But as much as I otherwise admire Hart’s book (and highly recommend it as a worthwhile read), it is still difficult for me to see “devotion … to the divine” in the obstinate perversity of so much atheist evangelism, especially that of Hitchens and Dawkins.

      • @Roger – I agree with those Hart quotations. I liked the beginning of his book but later he started to lose me. In the meantime, I’ve been reading Berdyaev and his notion of personalism – of what he calls “personality” as of maximal value, not to be lost in Being which has an objectivist bent where no freedom resides.

        The perversity of a Hitchens or Dawkins is monstrous. My claim is that I might be wrong about God and the afterlife, but a deterministic atheist is a nonsensical, self-contradictory and thus definitively false position.

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  4. Awful chicken-shit of you to talk about the late, great Christopher Hitchens while he’s in a grave. He’d clean the sidewalk with your ass, if he were still with us. If you were ever given the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens face up, I would’ve declined, if I were you.

    • I find this comment kind of delightful. I show how Hitchens has engaged in a logical fallacy and Mr. Merrick’s response is to join in the fallacy fest with an ad hominem fallacy directed at me, my courage or lack of it being beside the point. Oh, and more unprovable counterfactuals. There’s a bit of a gunslinger vibe going on, a soupcon of implied violence and a good dose of macho swagger.

      I get to be the skinny guy pleading: “I was just saying, Mr Hitchens, sir. I don’t mean no harm by it. Lordy, I hardly know what I’m saying half the time. Don’t pay no attention. Arrrggggghhhh” (as I bite the dirt of the street, thrown where I belong by the manly Mr. Hitchens.)

    • Conveniently for you, he is in the grave. Remember what happened in that debate between Dennett and William Lane Craig? Even the British atheist societies castigated Dawkins for scurrying away from a repeat encounter with Craig. Why, do you think, did Dawkins flee?

  5. I believe that CH was a Trotskyite. Perhaps this was an honest commitment, but it was also a convenient way for him to shed responsibility for most of what the Communists actually did when they were in power. Claiming there were gross deviations from the true spirit of a doctrine at an early date is, I suppose, a variant on this self-sealing fallacy. Many Christians have tried the same maneuver, saying it all went wrong with Paul, or the Council of Nicaea, etc.

    The name “no true Scotsman fallacy” is memorable, especially if one can say it with a convincing Scotts accent, but I think it makes the problem appear simpler than it is. It exploits a real equivocation in the term Scotsman, which can mean both a man from Scotland and a man who embodies the characteristic virtues and vices of a Scot. The first class of territorial Scotsmen will always be larger than the second class, and members of the second class need some way to disown merely territorial Scotsmen. So when the Scotsman in the story falls back on the term “true Scotsman,” we might say he is simply trying to settle the equivocal meaning of the word Scotsman.

    Ideologies control territories, but they are not themselves territories, so there were no territorial Communists or Nazis or atheists. If you denounce my ideology by pointing to someone I do not recognize as a member of my ideological group, it is not obviously fallacious for me to say that his association with the group is nominal, heretical, dishonest, mistaken, etc. For instance, I believe both Stalin and Hitler died as members of the Orthodox and Catholic churches respectively, and atheists sometimes tax Christians with this. “Stalin was a seminarian!” “Hitler was a Catholic!”

    With respect to the heralds of an Atheist utopia, I think the best answer is that they are simply guessing, since they have no way of knowing what a thoroughly atheist society would look like (especially what it would look like after 100 or 1000 years). If the concept of God is as tremendous as they claim, its absolute expurgation must obviously have vast and incalculable consequences.

    • JMSmith: I am writing about the self-sealing fallacy. If talking about Scotsmen is causing confusion, I apologize.

      My article is in response, specifically to Christopher Hitchens and his argument. CH is not claiming that Stalin was a Christian, so we can forget about that for now. Mao Zedong obviously was not a Christian. Communist Russia was not Christian or organized on Christian principles and neither was Communist China. In fact, they were explicitly atheistic. God knows what would have happened if Stalin had come out as Christian. I believe it would have negatively affected his communist street cred.

      Hitchens’ point is NOT that Stalin or Hitler were Christians, but that they were treated by their worshipful admirers as though they were god-like. Since this is a noticeable tendency among atheists, to find God-substitutes, this point is not telling. It’s what atheism looks like in practice.

      To find the sort of example Hitchens’ is looking for of a thorough-going atheism with no idolatry or God-substitutes on a large scale is impossible. If so, it is not God that doesn’t exist, but atheism.

      Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong were leaders of whole movements. Minute details of their personal proclivities are not particularly on point. The Catholic Church remains Catholic if they have an unbeliever Pope.

      • Sorry, Richard. I was just rambling in that comment. I was avoiding finals-week grading but also showing the effects of finals-week grading. I agree that atheists (speculative or practical) have been running the world for more than a century, so we do have empirical evidence of their principles in action. Like many of the doctrines that are popular today, atheism makes the world more comfortable for the rich, beautiful and powerful, since there is little to constrain them outside of supernatural sanctions. It seems to breed despair and nihilism in people farther down the social scale.

  6. According to Eric Voegelin, Christian Revelation represented a leap in consciousness or differentiation in consciousness. The Christian consciousness, insofar as one participates in it, is an increase in consciousness: It knows more and penetrates more deeply into the mystery of existence; it more accurately articulates its idea of the world than the Pagan consciousness no matter that that was highly developed in, say, the thought of Plato and Plotinus. The petulant rejection of Revelation, of the Gospel, would amount, then, to a mutilation of consciousness. He who rejects sentences himself to be demoted to a previous and lower level of thought and perception. Voegelin’s notion of Christianity is complementary to Girard’s. Insofar as Modernity decisively repudiates Christianity, it is regress rather than progress.

    • Related to the “no true Scotsman” argument (perhaps its flip side?) is one employed by your side that holds liberalism encompasses every modern evil. In this way a liberal democracy with a strong Christian tradition is just as culpable as an atheistic police state. Zippy made this argument frequently.

      • @winstonscrooge – I don’t follow your point in the first sentence. Could you rephrase and expand?

        If you would like to make the point that “real” liberalism ended in the 1960s and you, winstonscrooge, are a liberal and would like to renounce and distance yourself from many of the features of modern liberalism, that sounds great. The word “liberal” has gone through many changes. The meaning of “atheist” has not for the last several hundred years at least.

        Are we still on topic here? CH claims that the world would be a lot better off without religion. Counter claim: explicitly anti-religious movements and their leaders promulgated the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. Would you care to withdraw your claim?

        I am not arguing that religion and its proponents have not carried out atrocities.

        Since social justice, cultural Marxism, feminism and all the rest are Christianity substitutes followed with utmost zealotry by some, it is precisely the decline and waning of Christianity and the resulting vacuum that have contributed to the modern scapegoating culture we find ourselves in. At least, the correlation has been quite remarkable.

      • I guess my point is off topic. I’m not arguing in favor of Hitchens. Although, I found him interesting and entertaining I do not share his beliefs as to religion. It seemed to me that there was a similar argument at play vis a vis the criticism of the No True Scotsman argument and my criticism of the argument I have frequently heard that puts both liberal democracies and atheist police states in the same camp.

      • @winstonscrooge – there are interesting comparisons to be made between liberal democracies and atheist police states – but it is possible that it is precisely as liberal democracies become more atheist that the comparisons become stronger.

      • The chief similarity between modern liberal democracies and atheist police states is that in both the people (ie: scum such as yourselves) are entitled to hold our (ie: the ruling class or party or bureaucracy’s) opinion – but no other.

      • Compassion is a primary virtue in liberal democracy. Some would say it is the fatal weakness of liberal democracy. One result is a horror of brutal methods, such as assassinating dissidents or sending them to the gulag. Liberal democracy prefers to silence dissidents in genteel ways–by slander, snubbing, and ostracism. I suppose we must be grateful for small mercies, but the totalitarian end of liberal democracy is essentially the same as its more brutal counterparts. There is no legitimate discussion outside the frame of the party. The “marketplace of ideas” is rigged.

      • The Orthosphere is made up of disgruntled college professors, but we’re not part of the ruling class. That’s one reason we are disgruntled!

      • I think we may be getting tangled up in pronouns here. I believe BF was adopting the voice of an enforcer of public doctrine and feigning an address to all hypothetical dissident thinkers (“scum”). He means to imply that the enforcers of public doctrine set the frame of respectable discourse and pathologize anything outside that frame (calling it ignorant, uneducated, prejudiced, racist, etc.) Since I am in some respects a dissident thinker and I have no power to adjust the frame in my favor, I suppose I am one sort of “scum.”

      • Perhaps I should have put a ‘/sarc’ tag after my post
        but jokes explained usually cease to be funny,
        while irony exposed is just a pile of pyrites…

      • @winstonescrooge – ah, I was a bit taken back to be called “scum” until I decided what the intent was. One guy trolling really does think I’m scum – the one who wants Hitchens to mop the floor with me, so it’s not that unlikely.

      • Well, I think Kristor is not a disgruntled college professor, but otherwise, yes, that’s a strikingly good description of our little band. Which is funny because we met on the internet rather than some academic function, so there’s no reason we had to all be college professors. Maybe the young and non-faculty Orthospherians, like Sven and Proph, just don’t have as much time to waste on the internet.

  7. It’s delightful to see that lifelong applicant and supplicant to jewry get a bit of comeuppance. I know from experience beginning with my family of origin in which both parents (a Christian and a Jew) were professed atheists: Atheists HATE God. This trumps all: they have no way around, indeed don’t even see that they need to explain, this contradiction (their hatred for someone or something which doesn’t exist)!

      • I see. Thanks. Can’t say that I am a Girardian, but maybe I will become one one day. I should begin reading his books, I suppose.

    • The phrase always raises the questions: ‘Whose blood? And whose soil?’
      And of course, a ‘slogan’ was originally a Scottish/Irish Gaelic battlecry.

      Now, imagine the phrase being uttered by a straight-faced Donald Pleasance.
      That would be enough to put the creeps up most backbones…


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