The Sanctity of Doubt: A Thank You to Christopher Hitchens

I was in the middle of writing a post about God and art when I discovered that Christopher Hitchens had died. The typing stopped and the reading began. Once upon a time, ol’ Hitch was my hero, along with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

The irony? They still are.

Christopher Hitchens. Image from the New York Times

Seems strange, doesn’t it, that a writer about religion whose blog appears on the largest religion site on the internet could hold such a man in the same esteem as the likes of Jesus, Gandhi, Baha’u'llah, Lord Krishna, the Buddha and so many others. Fitting, I think, since irony was one of Hitch’s favorite expressions of intellect. That said, his staunch abhorrence for and active polemics against religion in all its shades and colors would no doubt attract his disdain for Project Conversion. He would not consider me a friend.

Thank God.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not here to become popular or even make friends. These occurrences are incidental. As Jesus once said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This will become increasingly more clear for you in the next year.

Speaking of friends, I had forgotten the power and purpose of doubt until yesterday morning when my wife lumbered through the living room toward the kitchen.

Christopher Hitchens died…” I said, my eyes fixed on the online edition of the New York Times article.

“Who’s that?”

I looked up from the computer screen. “You seriously don’t know? He’s one of the founders of the New Atheism movement. Probably the most respected and powerful voice of atheism of our generation.”

“Oh,” my wife said and waved off the name with disgust. “No wonder I don’t know him. Why would I want to?

My initial shock took some time before it eventually cooled into insight. I looked within and realized that I harbored, quite easily, both profound doubt and faith. This entire year is nothing more than a multi-chromatic yin-yang, twisting and mixing into new forms. How did I accomplish this?

And why is such dichotomy so difficult for everyone else?

Zarathushti Andrew

This is my crucible, my cross, and I bear it with passion.

Why is it that the faithful fear/avoid doubt and why do the doubtful turn from faith? On the surface, they appear opposites, but like the yin-yang, in principle, their nature implies the seed of one another.

Saint Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” The Buddha, who appeared about 500 years before Christ, asked us not to accept anything based on feelings, rumors, scriptures, and I dare say, faith.

So which is it? Which is more important: faith or doubt?

I would argue that the faithful need more doubt in their lives and vice versa. In a special way, doubt is the crucible by which real faith is forged. Doubt is what separates the one-day a week faithful from those who live out their religion to the fullest. Doubt burns the chaff. If you can withstand the fires of doubt, what remains is a truth that defines an entire being. The same corresponds to faith. If the skeptic, for only for the briefest of moments, walked by faith and not by sight and did not stumble as expected, would he open his eyes in fear of the seduction?

The faithful in general fear doubt however, because of the fear of failing the test. What happens if doubt sticks? On the other hand, those who balk at faith may suffer the same fear. What happens if I allow a season of doubt/faith? What might happen if I plant that mustard seed…and it grows?

Indeed, the fear of courting faith or doubt is tantamount to avoiding love for fear of what it might take from us, of how it might utterly, inexplicably, and unreasonable intoxicate us.

Life breaking through the concrete at the Warehouse Temple

I submit that the the faithful not disdain from Hitchen’s doubt and in fact, embrace it. Just as every forest hosts an occasional fire to clear the debris, so a season of doubt might bring you to a spiritual purging of that which chokes your soul. Submit your beliefs under the most intense fire, the most callous scrutiny, and if you make it out intact, let your roots submerge beneath the strata of renewed soil.

For those who doubt, I say, believe for a season as well. Believe in what? I submit, that you believe in that which you fear has the most likely chance of seducing you. For your season, give yourself wholly, tenderly, and with passionate affection to that which might sweep you off your feet.

Christopher Hitchens was a great man not because of his wit or intelligence, but because like the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Mahavira and others, he was enlightened. Enlightenment is not the summit of objective truth, but the realization–the precise knowing–of who you exactly are. An enlightened mind is one who has faced the crucible of doubt and faith and came out the other side perfected in who and what they are, regardless of who or what they may be.

Are you on the path to enlightenment? What is your crucible?

Perhaps we could make Christopher Hitchens the patron saint or Bodhisattva of doubt? I’m sure that would make him chuckle. Cheers Hitch. Thanks for keeping the furnace warm.


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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment schizophelia

    Wow. Your spiritual harlotry has given your voice a real bite in the best of ways.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lowell

    There is a pithy Hitchens quote that comes to mind, “it’s not as important what you think, as how you think.”

  • Sam Karvonen

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Andrew. Hitchens was a sui generis, even among atheists. He regarded himself an antitheist. But he was also a great defender of justice and moral goodness. He was adamant on reminding and demonstrating that atheists are moral beings, and that many of the worst atrocities were, in fact, perpetrated by theists.

    Indeed, a mere belief in God is definitely not a guarantee for high morals inasmuch as atheism is no obvious indication of immorality. Confucius never said a word about God but was known to be a man of virtue par excellence. Conversely, Hitler and Pope Innocent III were avowed believers.

    Hitchens was also bent on demonstrating how it is the theists that are at each others throats, rather than atheists. I think he was right. Privately entertained notions that ‘I am saved unlike so many others’ (among many Christians), that ‘I am chosen by God and hence inherently superior to others’ (among many Jews), or that ‘I have received the complete and the final Message of God unlike the others’ (among many Muslims), even as silent convictions by peace-loving believers, breed an unhealthy sense of superiority. They appeal to the primordial sense of pride, not too dissimilar to the son who enjoys his father’s favoritism. Particularistic creeds, by their very existence, heighten the thrilling feeling of being a favoured one of God, as well as a feeling of fearful prejudice towards ‘them others’ who have fallen out of favour and who are therefore bound to be hostile towards ‘us’. Particularly the fundamentalists are palpably fearful that “them others” may tempt me with their convincing talk to their damning ways. To them I always say, “O ye of little faith”, whose faith is so easily shattered to pieces by the mere existence of alternative takes on life, man and God. True faith, if it really is true, is rather consolidated by the review of alternatives. It is strengthened by studying the reasoned criticism presented by others. Not weakened. While they are by no means the only factor behind suicide bombings and mindless killing sprees at Norwegian summer camps, particularistic creeds by their very existence, and the mere fact of their widespread adherence, lend powerful moral justification to the actions of the few who are prepared to go a step further — using violence for their promotion.

    On the other hand, on balance, and in defence of the theists, the daily striving of good Christians, good Muslims, good Jews, good Bahá’ís and good Hindus to remodel our lives according to God’s virtues gives very deep meaning to our lives. It also poses a positive challenge to everyday life. It offers a very healthy focus for life. Pursuing to be God’s image in our own humble way is very much a source of enduring happiness and a sense of noble purpose in this world. It is only the strawman theist who fixes his hypocritical gaze only on the Hereafter while committing the worst crimes in this life.

    I daresay that theistic morality, at its best, is unrivalled, while at its worst, it is the bane of the world. It is the uncompromising quality of the morality of the great Catholic saints, this voluntary submission of one’s own judgment of what’s “right” and “wrong” to the One Whom they think know better, that distinguishes the morality of a devout theist from even highly ethical atheists. A true theist would submit to a worthwhile principle even when all that’s within him is crying out to do just the opposite.

    This uncompromising quality in genuinely theistic morality is of course a double-edged sword. If a principle or divinely perceived object of a believer is destructive and harmful, religious fervour can result in the worst atrocities known to man. If, on the other hand, the principle and commandment in question is constructive and truly enlightened, religious devotion can prompt the most saintly and heroic acts in recorded history (Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Imam Husayn, Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Báb, Táhirih, Mona Mahmudnizhad). The great prophets and religious sages seem to be unrivalled (by other historical figures) in their preaching, practicing and promotion of high moral standards. Hence they have remained an inspiration to hundreds of millions over many millenia.

    Even a highly ethical atheist is still the master of his own morality. In fact, he prides in being his own master and often looks down on the dummie believers who do not think for themselves but rather follow blindly some fairy tale opus. He follows a principle as long as it seems reasonable in his own estimation. But at the very moment he sees no rational basis in following a principle, he will make an exception, a compromise. Now, this does not mean that even at that situation there would actually be no rational basis to observe the principle. There are simply far too many moments in our lives when our judgment (even that of a cool rationalistic atheist) fails to see the reason of a principle due to it being clouded by powerful feelings, whether of love or hate, pain or pleasure, envy or ecstacy. A true lover of God will make no exceptions because he does not trust his own moral reasoning as much as God’s commandment to be patient, loving, persevering, respectful and forgiving. In fact, it is the theist who would be more suspicious, doubtful and in fact more skeptical, about the reliability of his own whims and imperfect reasoning than his atheist friend who trusts his own intellectual prowess much more.

    With kind regards,