Over at the The Edge of the American West, Eric Rauchway (who may or may not be my thesis adviser) asks “Is there some name for the intellectual maneuver of waiting till an opponent is dead, then insisting he must really have agreed with you all along?” The occasion for the question is Ross Douthat’s recent column about Christopher Hitchens, who he first admires as such a hip rebel and then disrespects by implying that Hitchens’ hipness was not only the style, but most of the substance of his critique of religion. Hitchens, Douthat muses, was perhaps “not so much a disbeliever as a rebel… his atheism was mostly a political romantic’s attempt to pick a fight with the biggest Tyrant he could find.”
Of course, dismissing an opponent’s arguments by claiming they are merely the peacock feathers of an ulterior motive is always a clever cop-out, but it doesn’t work especially well when there is actually a substantial argument to confront. No matter – even the sheer weight and scale of Hitchens’ oeuvre is actually evidence, Douthat claims, that he knew he was wrong.
In his very brave and very public dying, though, one could see again why so many religious people felt a kinship with him. When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade”— that “death is no different whined at than withstood.”
Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.
My hope — for Hitchens, and for all of us, the living and the dead — is that now he finally knows why.”
For the moment, we are going to ignore Douthat’s fifth-grade analysis of the implications of atheism, which is typical for someone who thinks that without the threat of hell, life would have no meaning. Rather, I just want to complain briefly about this classic argument so often made by theists.
The argument is, of course, that you don’t really believe there is no God – you couldn’t possibly. Perhaps you believe the major religions have got it wrong, or the Bible is a historical document written without divine inspiration, and maybe you even believe that we merely all get absorbed into a vague “energy of the universe” after death. But you don’t really believe there is nothing out there guiding the whole grand show – you don’t really think this world lacks the divine. Because you can’t. Because you know that is silly. Because deep down inside, we all know that there is Something Out There.
There are two problems with this. The first and most obvious is that this is not an argument – it is actually the opposite of an argument, if such a thing can be said to exist. To respond to the most damning criticisms of your position by simply shrugging and saying, “Yeah, but you can’t be serious – not deep down inside” is a mark of both intellectual cowardice and vacuity.
Secondly, and even more frustrating to my feeling, is the arrogance of this argument. It assumes that whatever seems obvious and self-evident to you is also, somewhere deep down inside (and really, whenever we have to resort to talking about what people feel “deep down inside” we know we’ve wandered into an argument only explicable in the terms of a Hallmark card), obvious and self-evident to everyone else. You’ve basically universalized your experience, and assumed not only that everyone feels how you feel, but that your interpretation is really the only interpretation any human being could sincerely come to. So, not only have you failed to imagine that everyone else might not in fact be extensions of yourself – something I thought we were supposed to get over at some point in our childhood, no? – but you’ve also assumed that the conclusion of your intellect is the only conclusion any human being, reasonable or not, could seriously find compelling or convincing. Note that this is not the same as insisting that you are right and they are wrong – we all do that, obviously. To maintain your position is one thing; to insist that this whole idea of another position is merely smoke and mirrors because really, we all know you are right – well, that’s quite another.
And never mind that similar human experiences have been interpreted in a myriad of ways based on cultural context, and never mind that even very common human experiences are not completely universal – at the end of the day the most reliable reference point when it comes to questions of the nature of the universe is, of course, yourself. That makes perfect sense.
I often disagreed with much of what Hitchens said and did – his analysis of religion often lacked any sense of historical complexity and his enthusiasm for attacking Islam (especially as the primary cause of Islamic terrorism, a painfully inadequate explanation) often fed into anti-Muslim bigotry, whether or not he intended it to. But for better or for worse, the man was sincere and committed to what, as far as he could discern, was the truth. If Hitchens was about anything, he was about refusing to back down from the intellectual challenge and responsibility of defending his arguments – the fact that Douthat has here managed to do the exact opposite, and in supposed tribute to the man, is a stroke of douchbageric genius.
 Actually is. The equivocating is due, the writer wishes to make clear, not out of shame but out of a (completely insincere) desire to not appear to be bragging.
 And why have I not seen more jokes on the internets about the proximity of Douthat’s last name with this particular epithet? It seems so perfect and self-evident to me.