Christopher Hitchens died on 16 December 2011.

I am not qualified to make any comment on the work or thought of Mr. Hitchens. I have never read anything he wrote. I have only seen random quotes attributed to him and second hand accounts of his writings.

But some of the things I have read about Mr. Hitchens and some of the thoughts I have heard attributed to him are fascinating.

David Frum appears to have counted Christopher Hitchens as a personal friend. In his passionate eulogy upon his friend’s death, Frum reported in “The National Post” that Mr. Hitchens

once said of families who raise their children to believe in God: “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?”

I wonder what would happen if we took the phrase “the compulsory inculcation of faith” and substituted alcohol, something to which I believe Christopher Hitchens was not entirely averse. How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by alcohol?  Or, at end of this question, we might substitute: sex, drugs, war, politics, colonialism, communism, capitalism, or name the institution of your choice.

Pick your demon. Who do you want to attack? Who are you interested in demonizing? Fill in the blank. Any human enterprise you can think of has at one time or another been guilty of causing physical and psychological harm in the human community.

The acknowledgement that all human endeavours are to some degree tainted by the conflicted reality of the human condition does not exonerate us from guilt for the harm we have done. But it does call into question the value of Mr. Hitchen’s point. What possible purpose does Mr. Hitchen’s sweeping question serve except to condemn an entire human enterprise by association with those parts of that enterprise that have been harmful?

David Frum reports that Hitchens

wrote that religion was “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

There is no doubt religion has at times been “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” Does it follow that there has never been a time when any religion was free of these grievous faults? Has there never been any religion ever that was gentle, peace loving, reasonable, and tolerant? Have there never been any religious people who felt themselves compelled by their religious beliefs to work against tribalism and bigotry? Is there no such thing as a religious person, or even a religious institution, that is open to free inquiry and respectful of women and children?

Mr. Frum sums up his adulation for Mr. Hitchens with the fascinating assertion that,

If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. (“National Post” “Full Comment” December 16, 2011)
http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/12/16/david-frum-on-christopher-hitchens-a-man-of-moral-clarity/

Can “moral clarity” ever come from “hating” anything?

Surely it is the very violence, intolerance, and bigotry Mr. Hitchens is praised for attacking that arise out of the soil of hatred. The simplistic vilification of all religion is not “moral clarity” but precisely the bigotry Hitchens attacked.

Two days after Mr. Hitchens died I spent an hour in church with some fifty-five children plus adults. The children dressed in costumes, sang songs, acted out the familiar Christmas story, and performed a musical piece with handbells.

Near the end of the performance I took the baby the child playing Mary had been holding. I showed the baby to the children and asked what they felt when they looked at this infant.  Not one child replied that he or she felt anger, hatred, bitterness, or bigotry. They described their feelings using words like, “Soft,” “Loving,” “Gentle,” “Kind,” “Beautiful”. I then said to these children that those are the qualities this baby was born to bring into the world and that the more we open our hearts to the reality to which this baby bore testimony, the more those qualities would exist in our lives.

Perhaps this exercise makes me guilty of  practicing “the compulsory inculcation of faith.” But it is a curious troubling world in which those who seek to encourage  children, and the adults with them, to open more deeply to gentleness, love, truth, beauty, and light are accused of bigotry, intolerance, ignorance, and violence, while their accusers are praised for their moral clarity.

As I understand it, and have experienced it in my life, the purpose of religion is to support openness, tolerance, thoughtful questioning, and generous inclusion. I regret that this was not Mr. Hitchen’s experience. But I am puzzled that he was unable to see that “religion” may be a more diverse reality than the narrow little box in which he apparently attempted to confine it.