It’s been interesting to watch my Twitter and Facebook accounts light up with tributes after the news that renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens died of cancer. I once heard Miroslav Volf say that he thinks Christians should read the great atheists – by which he meant Nietzsche, Freud, Marx – not Christopher Hitchens. His argument was they help us to strip away what is not central to our faith, and force us to think more deeply about what we are saying about God. Volf’s brilliance is living proof that this approach works. I have yet to hear of a quality theologian or philosopher who thinks that Hitchens comes anywhere close to distinguishing himself as a “great atheist” alongside those names.
Yet, perhaps this was not Hitchens’s fault. Maybe he was just a product of a very boring and saccharine age. Stanley Hauerwas once said in an interview, “What’s killing Christianity in America is not atheism. If only we could produce some interesting atheists. I mean the recent spate of people like Hitchens and Dawkins… all that does is show how dumb the secular has gotten. And that’s partly our fault because we’re not interesting enough to make them study why it is that such a people [Christians] are so odd. What’s killing the church in America is not atheism, but sentimentality.” [see also, my article on sentimentality from the Huffington Post] David Bentley Hart’s critique of Hitchens and the other neo-atheists is that , “Their popularity stems from the ignorance of their readers.” If Hitchens wasn’t great, maybe it’s not his fault; maybe it’s ours.
It’s a stunning indictment – made by both Hauerwas and Hart – to say that the reason Hitchens could be at once so famous and so terrible at his job is that Christian culture is so boring & facile that we can’t even produce a good atheist, while at the same time the secular culture has become so wholly ignorant that someone like Hitchens can become so famous by being terrible at what he did. Here’s an interesting video of David Bentley Hart talking about this reality.