God, Freedom, and Christopher Hitchens

God, Freedom, and Christopher Hitchens April 20, 2022


Is God an “unalterable celestial dictator” that impinges on human freedom as the late atheist Christopher Hitchens once claimed? It is likely a sentiment shared by many of today’s atheists. While I suspect that referring to God as an “unalterable celestial dictator” was more snarky than serious, I think the underlying sentiment, that God impinges on human freedom, is worth considering. 

Having it Both Ways

Before proceeding to the issue of God and human freedom, it is worth pointing out the error in Mr. Hitchens’ view of God as a “celestial dictator.” In order to see this error, it helps to define atheism. According to the American Atheists website, atheism is “a lack of belief in gods.” Assuming that Mr. Hitchens accepted this or some variation of this definition, his error begins to come into focus. 

As an atheist, Mr. Hitchens asserted that God both does not exist and that God is a dictator. This error is so blatant that one need not be an expert in logic to recognize the problem. Specifically, this argument violates the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time. Here, it must be that God cannot lack existence and be a dictator simultaneously.

As said above, I doubt Mr. Hitchens intended this claim to be taken seriously. The implication of the statement, however, is worth considering.

Are We in Competition with God?

The implication of God as a dictator is fairly straightforward, the existence of God is a hindrance to human freedom and dignity. This premise assumes a disjunctive, either/or dilemma. The assumption is predicated upon the belief that the will of God imposes itself upon and thereby diminishes human freedom.

To understand the nature of this argument, I will need to define what it is to be human and the nature of freedom. 

If I use the time-honored definition provided by Aristotle, a man may be defined as a rational animal. As it refers to humankind, rationality is the ability to, among other things, use language and engage in abstract reasoning. 

Specifically, rationality refers to the ability of humans to understand universals or the essences of things. For example, we can know that man is mortal without ever witnessing the death of every person. We know this because we know that it is within the nature of a human being to die.

Now, if a human being is rational, it must mean that the world in which man lives is intelligible, for as Aristotle noted, nothing nature does is in vain. The ability of human beings to understand must mean that there is something to be understood. If this is not true, if human beings are not rational or the universe is not intelligible, epistemology becomes impossible, as does science.  

If human beings can understand truth, specifically objective truth, it must be because objective truth exists. Furthermore, it must be that an object of man’s rationality is objectively true. Here, it may be useful to define objective truth. Objective truth means conforming the mind to reality. That is to say, the validity of objective truth is not contingent upon any subject. For example, in ethics, the murder of an innocent person has always been wrong, regardless of the individual committing the act, the circumstance, or the time.

Of human nature, I must also first settle upon a definition. It may be said that human nature is a set of traits or characteristics common to all humans at all times. These traits are not produced but rather discovered. While culture and time may alter how that nature is manifested, the nature of human beings is innate and fixed. 

Now, it is true that everything that exists possesses a nature. In the case of human beings, this nature involves the capacity to make moral judgments.

Moral Agent

That which makes judgments must also be judged. It is owing to the fact that human beings can make moral judgments that positive law (man-made law) is even possible. Yet, even positive law presupposes certain moral absolutes, like the prohibition of murder. This presupposition is predicated on natural law. However, natural law itself must presuppose a lawgiver, that is to say, a construct that is the basis for objective morality.

Here I must add another definition, that of natural law. The definition of natural law is humanity’s ability to participate in the eternal law, which is the mind of God. Natural law is the mind of God made manifest to human beings. 

God and the Good

Since freedom is inclusive of good, the fulfillment of man’s nature must include freedom. As for freedom, it may be defined as the ability of an agent to act without being hindered. Freedom does not exist in a vacuum but is meant to be placed within the context of the nature of the agent who is free to act.

Since man’s nature is able to comprehend the ultimate good as its final cause, it must be this good, this ultimate good that is the completion of man’s nature. The ultimate good must be that which is not sought for any other purposes but rather that which is good in itself. 

Since the ultimate good is not sought for anything other than its intrinsic value, it cannot be material, for that which is material is used only in relation to something else. Therefore, the ultimate good must be immaterial. Further, that which is immaterial is not bound by time. Any good that is created can only be caused by a greater good. We may conclude by determining that the ultimate good must be that which is immaterial and uncaused. We may further infer that that which is immaterial and uncaused is also eternal. This is so because that which is immaterial is not composed of parts, for it is in the decay or destruction of parts of the whole that cause death, that is, the separation of the form (or soul) from the matter (or body). 

Finally, since a good that is innate can only be a product of an intellect possessed of a will, the ultimate good must be intellectual, immaterial, and eternal. It is this that we call God. 

In connecting these premises, it seems that man’s nature is completed and fulfilled only in communion with God. As was said above, this fulfillment must also include human beings being genuinely free. Here, a distinction is made between natural law, which is meant to free man, and positive or man-made laws designed to regulate man’s base instincts.

Contra to Christopher Hitchens, God is not some cosmic dictator that destroys human freedom but rather is the source and fulfillment of human freedom.

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