Christopher Hitchens, Suffering, and Deathbed Conversions

Christopher Hitchens, Suffering, and Deathbed Conversions December 18, 2011

It was one of the now-departed Christopher Hitchens’ most considerable virtues that he inspired many essays.  I only met “Hitch” once, but the meeting served as the point of departure for a sardonic piece on “Santacide” and a more substantive reflection on suffering and finding Christ in its midst.  I have been migrating some pieces from my old column to my new blog (this blog), so the latter is offered below, in his memory:

* * * * *

My pain illuminates me from within. It pulls back the curtain of my flesh and makes me visible to myself. Nothing else in my life does this.

The tenth of February was the fifteenth anniversary of the day on which I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident. I have always noted the anniversaries inwardly, in a kind of morbid remembrance of that fateful day—that single moment, really, in the early evening—that changed my life decisively and irrevocably.

Of the 5,475 days that have passed in those fifteen years, I have felt spinal pain in nearly every one. The pain arrives swiftly, like water rushing over the shore, and recedes slowly like water sinking into the sand. And it does something else. When the pain presses down from my neck and carves a sharp burrowing path down my cervical spine and through my shoulders into my arms, I can feel my bones. I’m not normally aware of my skull, my vertebrae, my clavicle. They are submerged within me, senseless and mute. When the pain arrives, however, I can count my bones. They ache and mourn—and I am aware of them. Pain illuminates me.

This came to mind recently as I was considering the case of Christopher Hitchens. The irascible commentator and rakish champion of militant godlessness suffers from esophageal cancer. He has complained that many Christians, knowing his plight, have communicated to him that “Surely now would be the perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.”

The complaint is understandable. Christians have a standard stock of counterfeit sympathies they send into circulation around the suffering and bereaved. It can seem coldly opportunistic when Christians respond to the suffering of a non-believer with: “Perhaps it will turn him to God.”

But Hitchens shows that he has not understood Christianity well. Christians, in this case, are standing squarely in the richness of their tradition. That tradition does not teach that sufferers are so wearied and weakened that they will abandon their moral and intellectual scruples. Rather, it teaches that suffering makes certain things plain to us. Suffering has the power to penetrate our illusions, shatter our masks, and unveil the fundamental realities of who we are and who God is. Like pain in the body, the lamp of suffering illuminates the architecture of the spirit.

I can imagine the concerned cries of the professoriate that I am “valorizing” suffering. So let it be said: sometimes suffering is simply devastating and destructive. Countless many have suffered far worse than I, and there may be suffering so severe that it effectively extinguishes the human spirit and any power it might have possessed to find something redemptive within the experience. And suffering sought for its own sake, or wielded against oneself as a tool of self-hatred, is foolish and sinful. There is nothing redemptive in suffering itself, and each person over the course of a lifetime will have abundant opportunity to endure and learn from suffering without having to court its company. And I am bracketing the question of why there is suffering in the first place; I am not asking why there is evil, or why there is suffering (which are not the same), but what good can be drawn from suffering by those who are willing.

I know for certain that some suffering can be valuable instrumentally—in its consequences within and around us. And I know in faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which always seeks us and seeks through our joys and sorrows to draw us unto him. Certain truths, certain essential truths, are only learned by a willing student in the school of suffering.

It’s a common misconception that suffering binds us together. Suffering first isolates—in order then to bind. No person is more deeply alone than the sufferer surrounded by the babbling throng but absorbed in an interior world of pain and despair, a world that cannot be shared. Even those who love the sufferer cannot take his pain for a day to give him rest. Yet there is something good in this. Some of us will not become authentic individuals until suffering draws us out of the chattering crowd and shows us the emptiness and futility of the crowd’s way of living. While the crowd seeks enjoyment and entertainment, anything to distract its collective mind from the fearful realities of our existence, the individual stands alone in suffering and—if he is willing to see it—alone before his brute actuality.

C. S. Lewis likened suffering to a megaphone, yet suffering makes itself heard not by raising its voice but by dampening the voices of others. I think of suffering as an isolation chamber where the sufferer might hear again, for the first time perhaps in years, the still voice within. And when one has been isolated, when suffering has made one different from others, and therefore an object of anxiety, loathing or pity, the sufferer learns who his true friends are. When sufferers are bound together again, they are bound together as individuals, as people who walk together but stand alone before their fate. And in their separation from others they are prepared for God and what God might teach them through their experience.

There is nothing more important for a person to learn—and no lesson suffering is more suited to teach him—than his own nothingness. Suffering does not make us stronger, but neither does it sap our strength until we are ready to find convenient consolation in God. Rather, suffering reveals that we have been weak all along, that our strength is an illusion and our sense of permanence and invulnerability has always been a façade. Suffering shows us that we are powerless to secure what we are most eager to possess, that everything the world has given can be swept away in the blink of an eye.

At a recent event at the Pew Forum, I asked Hitchens whether he ever doubted his views on God and faith. Immaculate certainty is an essential part of his public persona, but was he ever troubled in the dark of night by the possibility that there is a God who loves him? Hitchens answered (as he did in God is Not Great) that he is one of those, referenced by Pascal, who is so constituted that he simply cannot believe. (He is misusing Pascal here, but that’s another matter.)  Like any skilled debater, Hitchens prides himself on his ability to argue both sides of an argument. In the case of Christianity, he said, he could not even begin to make it seem credible.

Yet I did not ask whether he could begin to believe the Christian gospel. I asked whether he could begin to doubt his own standpoint. Hitchens, asked whether he ever doubted himself, spoke instead of the doubtfulness of a view that was not his own. The nineteenth-century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that false doubt is boastful and delights in pointing out the doubtfulness of other things. True doubt, the doubt that saves, doubts itself over all else. This is what suffering can teach. Suffering shows us our own horizon; it lays bare our weaknesses; it reveals that we, even in those seasons when we felt self-sufficient and invincible, have always been utterly dependent upon God for all things.

Just as importantly, suffering teaches the sufficiency of God. Shortly after I broke my neck, as they wheeled me into the hospital and drilled a halo into my skull, and then throughout my stay in the hospital, I was filled with an inexplicable joy. In one moment I laughed uncontrollably; in another I wept joyfully, shattered into a thousand pieces by an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I had seen in a single blessed glance how weak and powerless and empty I am by myself—and how strong and sufficient and rich I am in God. I know of many who have had the same experience. When you see that the world cannot strip away the one thing needful, that nothing indeed can separate you from the love of God, it is a liberating and life-changing thing.

Finally, the reason so many find God in “the land of malady” is because Christ has made himself present there. The ancient faiths and philosophies recoiled at the notion that God should enter into history in the agony and effluvia of birth, much less that God should be tempted in the wilderness or be spat upon or suffer and die upon a cross. Yet such is the revolutionary claim at the heart of the Christian faith, that God, in Christ, entered into the condition of suffering humanity. Even in the fiery furnace, even in the isolation chamber, the Son of God is there.

And God has not only made himself present in suffering; he has transformed it. God is no mere cosmic sympathizer, no Oprah in the Sky who claims to feel our pain but does nothing for it. Just as Christ has taken the sting from death by vanquishing its hopelessness, and achieving a new life beyond the grave, so Christ has taken the sting from suffering by filling it with purpose. The emptiness, the hopelessness, the loneliness are taken away. We do not find Christ in suffering. Christ finds us, if we are willing to be found, in the promise to work all things to good for those who love him and are called by him. Those who are willing will be refined in the furnace of affliction. And we know too that there shall be a last day for tears, beyond which there will be no more suffering.

Christopher Hitchens may or may not find the Way, the Truth and the Life in the midst of such extraordinary hardship. He may or may not experience a deathbed conversion. But it is there for him, waiting to be found. Suffering makes us visible to ourselves in all our poverty and powerlessness, and discloses the secret that the one thing needful can never be taken away, and in our suffering we may hear the call of the suffering Christ. Perhaps it is true, for Hitchens as for many of us, that the Way can be found nowhere else. Perhaps some have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death in order to learn that the Lord is their shepherd, whose goodness and love will follow them all their days and take them to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


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  • Pat Pope


    Though you primarily dealt with physical suffering in this piece, I see many parallels to suffering of all kinds, particularly emotional as I have spent the last half of this year working through some emotional/spiritual pain. I was just thinking this morning, that there’s nothing like conflict in which you come to find what you really believe and what you will and won’t stand for. So yes, suffering has much to teach us.

    I thought it was interesting that Hitchens didn’t directly answer your question but immediately went to critiquing Christianity and why he couldn’t believe in it.

    I was actually saddened by his death and like you, hope that in his final moments, even in the subconscious realm, that he was able to find the Way. There certainly is nothing to glory in about him dying any other way and I think the only reasonable response is one of sadness for what he may have missed in his journey here on the earth.

  • I think you’ve failed to recognize the limitations of your own viewpoint.

    Suffering does not have a tendency to make people into theists. It tends to make people more of whatever they are.

    A Christian tends to become more Christian. An atheist tends to become more atheist.

    The death of my father was a traumatic experience for me, I suffered emotionally during that time. I entered the experience a somewhat wishy-washy atheist with a faint leaning towards deism and even belief in spirits of some sort. I emerged a staunch materialist.

    I have no doubt at all that Christians who have fallen away from their religion but still believe, at least a bit, may emerge from trauma with a greater faith.

    I’d argue that this demonstrates not that trauma produces faith, but rather that trauma seems to amplify whatever is present.

    As for your question to Hitchens, I think it was a bad question.

    Are you ever, in the dark of the night, disturbed by the possibility that the thunder is made by Thor?

    Are you ever, in the dark of the night, disturbed by the possibility that Harry Potter really did defeat the Dark Lord?


    Then you know exactly how atheists feel about your own deity.

    I think one of the harder things for atheists and theists to understand about one another is that we do, mutually, really think what we claim to.

    The theists like to imagine that, somewhere, the atheists must be aware that of course there is a God.

    The atheists like to imagine that, somewhere, the theists can’t really believe that stuff.

    But we do, both theist and atheist alike really believe what we claim to.

    I must say that I find it extremely strange, that the mindset of theism is so alien to me that it is very tempting indeed to imagine that, on some level, you’re aware of how silly it all is and that you’re just pretending out of tradition or something.

    But I recognize that this temptation is the result of lazy thinking.

    As for certainty, while I can’t speak for Hitchens, I can only say that most atheists are not at all certain.

    Not in the sense of doubting ourselves, or harboring secret belief, but rather in the sense that we tend to see certainty on any issue as a sign of insufficient thought and education.

    I’m not *certain* that the sun will rise tomorrow. Or that gravity will work.

    I’d be extremely surprised if either of those events took place and I expect that neither will, but I’m not absolutely, 100%, no holds barred, certain about much of anything.

    So no, I’m not 100% certain that there are no gods. But, as I said, I’m fairly sure that 100% certainty from anyone on just about any issue is a sign of either ignorance or hubris.

    For me atheism is not about believing that there is no god, but rather about not believing in a god. The difference, I maintain, is significant. To believe there is no god is a religious position, a matter of faith in a conclusion. I don’t do that. I simply don’t invest the notion of god with any belief, as I don’t invest much of anything with belief in the religious sense. I’m not a fan of faith or belief in the religious sense.

    But I’m not kept awake at night, plagued by doubts in my lack of belief in a god anymore than you’re kept awake at night plagued by doubts about your lack of belief in Thor.

    Unless it’s brought up in argument I simply don’t think about theism at all.

    Theists, in my experience at least, like to imagine that theism is unique but that is not the case. From my point of view theism is simply one out of a nearly infinite set of beliefs that are not supported by any evidence and (when properly constructed anyway) can’t be refuted by any evidence either.

    That’s the point behind Russell’s Teapot, to illustrate that theism is not unique but rather simply one possible member of a set of head games that anyone can invent with a few moments of thought and a bit of imagination.

    I’m not disturbed by doubts about Russell’s Teapot and I’m not disturbed by doubts about gods.

    I take the same position on them that I do on fairies, invisible pink unicorns, and all the other items from that category: until evidence to the contrary is presented I will work on the assumption that they do not exist.

    Show me empirical evidence for the existence of a deity and I will change my mind on that subject. Same as I will change my mind on the subject of fairies, or miniscule orbital porcelain, if evidence indicating the existence of either of those is presented.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I see things differently, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that I’m writing from a particular viewpoint. I was giving, here, a Christian way of understanding suffering and what it reveals. In part, I was responding to Hitchens’ mischaracterization of Christian views of suffering and its relation to faith.

      As for the rest — my question was whether there was anything that caused him to doubt his atheism. On the question of whether there is or is not a Creator, there’s plenty of room for doubt. Any person of intellectual sobriety will have to acknowledge this. But Hitchens was a person who was more moved, on this matter, by matters of passion — for all his declamations to the contrary. If it were *simply* a matter of reason, he would have been much more measured and provisional in his conclusions, like many agnostics and atheists before him. Instead, his was more of a political stance, a passional stance.

      In any case, I was not claiming that my question was a stroke of genius; I was saying that his response to it was telling. Christopher Hitchens found many things doubtful, but he never found Christopher Hitchens doubtful. That’s an unfortunate oversight.


      • “my question was whether there was anything that caused him to doubt his atheism.”

        When phrased that way, I’d have to answer no myself, and not because I’ve got an overwrought sense of my own infallibility.

        When phrased “[are you] ever troubled in the dark of night by the possibility that there is a God who loves [you]?”

        I’d again answer no.

        I don’t see Hitchens’ answer, as paraphrased by you, as being a dodge or particularly a bad answer, or really even telling of his own (undeniably) obnoxious and philosophically worrying self assurance.

        The only thing that could make me doubt my atheism would be empirical evidence for the existence of a deity. Absent that, why should I doubt?

        I could ask you (presuming that you don’t believe in fairies) “is there anything that causes you to doubt your a-fairism?” I think you’d answer no.

        I could ask you if you are ever troubled in the dark of night by the possibility that there are fairies who love you, and you’d probably answer no when the question was phrased that way too.

        You, I’d assume, see the question of the existence of fairies as being of lesser importance, or lesser significance, or simply not comparable in any significant way, to the question of gods.

        I don’t.

        I don’t believe in fairies, and I’ve never had cause to doubt that nor am I ever disturbed by thoughts that fairies might exist and love me. I am simply not concerned about fairies, at all, and other than those times when I encounter them in fiction or someone brings up the concept I never think about them one way or another. I am, when you get right down to it, completely and utterly unconcerned with fairies and their existence. As, I imagine, are you.

        For me that exact same unconcern applies to questions of gods. I don’t see the question as pressing, significant, philosophically important, or really even more or less interesting than questions about the existence of fairies. I don’t think or worry about my position on gods other than in discussions of theism. You, I’d assume, disagree and would hold that theological questions are of great importance and can’t be compared to questions of fairies.

        I do, however, agree that Hitchens was unfortunately not very introspective on any number of fronts. He subjected the Christianity he was raised in to vigorous analysis and rejected it. He never subjected his views on, for example, the war in Iraq to a similar review.

        He was flawed, no doubt. But any movement needs people who are utterly devoted, even to the point of an otherwise crippling lack of introspection, if that movement is to succeed.

        I’d much rather that the issue of religion, gods, Christianity, and so forth were so unimportant that there would be no need for the obnoxiously self assured people like Hitchens to take them on. Unfortunately while America continues on it’s dangerous course towards theocracy we’ll need people like Hitchens to fight back.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          You’re missing the disanalogy here. We’re talking about theism. If Hitchens is wrong, then there is a god. If I am wrong, then there is no god. It is not the case that if I am wrong about there being a God, then ergo there are fairies, or there is Thor. I’m not particularly concerned about the possibility that there is a Thor. But I am concerned about the possibility that there is no god. I take that possibility very seriously and have spent an awful lot of time of my life and my academic career examining the arguments for an against. I’ve concluded that I think it’s most reasonable to believe there is a god (or God), but I hold open the possibility that I am wrong.

          Even if we got a little more specific and said, “I believe in the existence of the kind of God Christianity describes,” the falsehood of that statement would not imply that there are are fairies or Thor. When I put my question to Hitchens, I added a little bit of flavor as “a God who loves you,” but that was mostly intended to contrast comically with being haunted by the thought in the dark of night (i.e., by such a terrible thought that there’s a loving God). So if you wanted to be exacting, you could say that the falsehood of Hitchens’ atheism would only imply that there is a god, not necessarily that there is a God who loves him. To which I would agree.

          I’ll admit that I give a higher prima facie plausibility to the existence of the Christian God than I do to Thor, for the simple reason that the great majority of the western world, and of the greatest minds in the western world, have believed in the existence of the Christian God — while the belief in Thor (outside very, very small circles) has not spread or survived through the formation of modern ways of thinking. This is not a reason to conclude that God exists, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable as a rule-of-thumb guide (with an openness to exceptions) to which possibilities are worth taking seriously.

          I do think the question of the existence of God is important because I believe that question, and the following questions regarding the character of that God and the extent to which it might be knowable, have extraordinary consequences. My beliefs essentially come concurrently: “There is a Creator” and “The Creator/God has revealed himself (using “him” loosely) in Jesus Christ.” The rest flows from there. In fact, I think it’s pretty obvious that there is a Creator, and it requires some extraordinary mental gymnastics to get around that conclusion. But of course I understand you’d disagree. Perhaps we’ll have to flesh these things out sometimes; I don’t typically write straightforward apologetic pieces, but perhaps I should.

          Anyway, thanks for the conversation.


          • Perhaps I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I follow your argument, or perhaps you aren’t following mine.

            I certainly am not saying that if you are wrong about God then there are fairies.

            But if you are wrong about fairies then there are fairies.

            If you are wrong about Thor then there is Thor.

            If you are wrong about Russell’s Teapot then there is indeed a very tiny teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars.

            Truth or falsehood about any one does not necessarily indicate truth or falsehood about any other.

            Where Thor and your deity differ is purely in that you’ve got a modern image of your god which no Christian from earlier eras would recognize, or if they did they’d see it as darkest heresy, because you have a god very carefully constructed to be not refutable by any evidence, a god who hides. But even that isn’t unique, Russell designed his teapot to be non-refutable and anyone with a bit of thought and imagination can construct imaginary beings which are equally non-refutable.

            I’m still afraid I don’t see how your deity is especially unique. If I say that I believe in fairies, taking care to emphasize that these fairies are completely non-detectable by any means whatsoever, then you can’t prove otherwise anymore than I can prove your god does not exist. As with your deity, there is no reason to imagine that fairies do exist, but you can’t prove they don’t.

            I’m disinclined to agree that the popularity of your deity is evidence of anything but popularity. Harry Potter is quite popular as well, that isn’t evidence that he is real. I’ll certainly agree that the Abrahamic religions have endured very well, but so too have others. Buddhism was established a few centuries earlier than Christianity and it’s endured quite well. Hinduism either predates or is contemporary with Judaism, and it too has survived.

            More to the point, longevity is only evidence of longevity, not truth. People, including very smart people, believed in a geocentric universe for quite a long time too.

            “I do think the question of the existence of God is important because I believe that question, and the following questions regarding the character of that God and the extent to which it might be knowable, have extraordinary consequences.”

            As it happens, I agree. Though it is the consequences in this world that concern me. People believe in different gods, and they fight over which god is real, which holy book is real, and those fights are not limited to academia but all too often involve actual weapons and actual deaths.

            If the belief in gods were merely a personal idiosyncrasy, like a belief in astrology, I wouldn’t be concerned. Regrettably theists are not content to keep their theism to themselves, or to limit their disagreements to words. Theists fight among themselves, and as our technology has improved the possibility is quite real that theists may well kill us all in their battles over who’s god is biggest. Less drastically, theists insist on forcing the commandments of their holy texts on others. While that’s not nearly as large a concern as the end of human life via holy war, it is something that concerns me.

            “In fact, I think it’s pretty obvious that there is a Creator,”

            I’ve often heard theists say this, but none have ever managed to explain why this is so. Typically I am, at this point, referred to Aquinas’ “proofs”. Usually #1 and #2 occasionally #5 as well. Most modern thinkers don’t seem to find #3 and #4 convincing any longer (or at least not convincing to others). Occasionally I’m presented with the Kalaam version.

            I don’t find any of that convincing or obvious, to me it looks like god in the gaps. We do not, today, understand the origin of the universe and I see no shame or failure of science in admitting this. It does not, however, mean that the answer is that a deity is responsible.

            If there is something I’ve overlooked, some obvious bit of empirical evidence proclaiming the existence not only of a deity, but of your specific deity please do let me know. I pride myself on changing my opinions when new, or at least previously unknown to me, facts are presented.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            We were talking about theism, the existence of a divinity. I asked Hitchens whether he was ever troubled by the possibility that there might be a god. You said he may not be troubled by that possibility any more than I am troubled by the possibility that there are fairies or Thor. I’m saying that those things are not analogous. If Hitchens is wrong (about theism), then there is a god. If I am wrong (about theism), then it does not follow that there are fairies or Thor.

            As I stated, the fact that the great majority of folks in the western world, historically and presently, believe in a deity, is not reason to believe. (So, as you say, “longevity” — though it’s not really longevity (nor “popularity”) that I’m talking about here — is not the same thing as truth. That was the point I already granted. But belief-making is a process that involves an assessment of a kind of prima facie plausibility that leads us to take a possible belief seriously. I don’t take the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a possibility worth spending a lot of time on, because no one believes in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s not to say that I couldn’t be persuaded otherwise, but it’s going to take a fair amount of evidence to overcome the prima facie implausibility. The geocentric universe was quite plausible. It made sense of a lot of observations. So it took time and a lot of evidence and argumentation to establish a heliocentric solar system. That’s a case of something that was prima facie implausible that was later found to be true. But there are a million and one cases of prima facie implausible beliefs that are not true, and that no one seriously thinks worth investigating (that there is a Teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars, or a Rhino, or a Hippo…ad infinitum).

            I am inclined to take most seriously (merely as *possible* beliefs) those beliefs that have persisted and spread and flourished over time, including in the modern world. You are too, by the way, when it comes to any number of other matters, and perhaps to the question of theism as well. You will seriously inquire whether the theory of gravity is true, and you give it a certain prima facie plausibility because so many people, including modern scientific people, believe it to be true. I do the same for theism, and so I think do the majority of other people. So I feel intellectually obligated to take seriously Christianity, Judaism, atheism, and (to a significant but lesser extent, since I think they have been less tested by the scientific revolution) Islam and the Eastern religions.

            If it were mere “popularity,” and not a belief in the existence of God (people may like Harry Potter, but they do not think he exists) that is supported by a long and rich tradition of philosophical, theological and other forms of argumentation, then it would be different. But that was not the claim.

            Aquinas was, of course, placing in a distilled philosophical form the kinds of arguments, intuitions and observations that Christians and Jews and others had been making for many centuries prior to him. I do not view them as proofs, and I think they’re prone to dramatic misunderstanding when they’re abstracted from their theological context. There are good arguments to be made that the first “proof” is not a gaps argument, and there are forms of the second argument that are not gap arguments. One has to differentiate when theism is explaining what science could potentially explain but presently cannot, versus when theism is explaining what science is in principle unable to explain, or is not so much explaining as it is reflecting a perception or experience.

            Anyway, I need to bow out at this point. It takes an awful lot of time to go back and forth like this, and hardly anyone who visits the blog will see it since it’s buried deep in the comments. When I do this too much, I end up posting few new blog posts. So let’s wait until I write something that’s actually intended to argue for the existence of God, and have the opportunity to lay it out sequentially. Thanks, though, for the friendly conversation. To do it justice, this would have to take scores, perhaps hundreds of pages. But if you let me know what your academic expertise is (if any) in this area, or what you’ve read from the theist side of the argument, I can tell you which books I’d recommend.

            Whatever “your deity” (in the Tillichian sense) may be, I pray mine (in the Barthian sense) will bless you,


        • Javier Oliva

          I would suggest this book.

          The author David Berlinski is no Bible thumper.

    • Edu8orDie

      Brilliant. Perfectly put. Thank you the fun read, and for saving me the time required to write it myself.

  • tneveca

    It disturbs me to the depth of my being that people are driven to learn spiritual lessons from suffering and death. What could possibly make suffering and death more bitter than the untruth of the spirituality we seek in it.

    In actual fact, the most stable and psychologically advantageous attitude to suffering and death is to shrug your shoulders at it with the emotional superficiality of a psychopath. There is no depth whatsoever in suffering and death–no moral elucidation, no philosophical insight, no progress towards a higher state of consciousness, no honor or dignity. Suffering and death is meaningless for lower animals like crab lice and snakes, and it is equally meanningless for us. What gives it the illusion of meaning is the fact that we respond to it with emotion. The mistake is to give a damn. The proper response is to become hardened to the point of indifference, which is precisely how it was for our ancient ancestors who lived in the constant presence of brutality and bloodshed. In the face of suffering and death, I recommend glibness and shallow dismissal. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m impressed that you know how our ancient ancestors felt about suffering! Can I have the reference? 🙂

      If you wish to respond with glib and shallow dismissal, that’s your prerogative. For me and many others like me, while we don’t think that suffering is good in itself, we do think that there are important lessons one can learn from it. In fact, this seems pretty self-evident on its face. I would find it disturbing if people believed that suffering in itself is good; I find it not disturbing in the slightest that people think they can learn valuable lessons about the world and about themselves from their experiences of suffering.

      I’m reminded of the years in which I served (part-time) as a chaplain at a max-security prison. I was attending classes at Princeton Theological Seminary, where some of the professors were allergic to the notion that prison inmates should find something redemptive coming out of their suffering. If we believed there were something redemptive, wouldn’t this legitimate the oppression of those who cause the suffering? That’s only the case…well, if you’re psychopathic. Ordinary people can understand that I ought not to cause suffering under normal circumstances (excepting cases like disciplining a child), even though people might find something redemptive out of that experience. And when I went to the inmates, they were the first people to tell you of all the valuable ways in which they’ve been shaped and matured through their experiences of suffering. It’s often people who have suffered the least, or who are angered that a loved one has suffered, who are mortified at the idea of finding something redemptive out of suffering — but the sufferers themselves, including in many cases that very same loved one, do indeed find something redemptive and are rarely reluctant to talk about it.

      Again, there are exceptions, of course…


  • Tim

    Hmmm. I think a few philosophical rejoinders are on the cards here.

    The idea that someone could learn something special from suffering does not strike me as objectionable. At least, neither more nor less so than the idea that something unique could be learned from extreme joy, or orgasm. Indeed, most experiences teach something unique in their context, which is the very corner-stone of that empirical tradition of which Christopher Hitchens was such a sterling example.

    I doubt, indeed, that atheists understand Christianity. I doubt equally that Christians understand atheism. Myself, I don’t interpret the crucifixion in the spirit suggested by my namesake. Of course, if one really lacked belief, or the capacity for insight that it provides, and found oneself hanging on a cross, it would, indeed, be pure Kafka. But Jesus supposedly had uninterrupted access to the beatific vision, which, according to mystics who claim to have seen it, would make even the flames of Hell into a merely peripheral annoyance. Evidence for this is that even his most despairing cry begins as a direct address to God. The crucifixion is therefore hardly an instance of suffering.

    I can’t say that I agree with Hitch about religion. Oddly for a man who talked so well about science, I think his approach is unscientific. Briefly, it seems obvious to me that an attempt to understand religion must take account of the texts that it is based on. For different reasons, I am somewhat skeptical of most going accounts of the Bible, certainly including Hitch’s.

    What arouses my particular brand of skepticism about the kind of religious reasoning on this thread is just the assumption that what will come out of suffering is an experience that leads directly to the author’s particular (Christian) convictions. It seems clear to me that nothing based on the various texts to which it can appeal could possibly be well-founded enough to justify that degree of confidence.

    Rest in peace Christopher – you were no more wrong about the Bible than many sworn believers.

    Tim (other one)

  • Tim

    By the way, on the subject of fairies, I’m married to a fairy and am tormented by the idea that I do love her but that the fairy species is just so different from humans that the love involved has no meaning whatsoever and is really a form of presumption. I am tormented by the notion that my audacious love, however well-intentioned, will end by damaging the fairy, and also prejudice the future of the child I have had with her. Meanwhile, my dense human emotions kind of escape through the gossamer of her being. It is tormenting to reflect, as well, that what I feel might not be a true human emotion, which at times makes me doubt that I feel it. Since no one but a few guys in lonely outposts on the Isle of Man and such places even believes in fairies, most people utterly fail to understand my predicament, which is, nonetheless, perfectly real. He that has ears to hear, let him hear. And well-intentioned advice, most welcome.