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.