Column: The popinjay’s matchbox coffin
I haven’t always been curious about atheists. My interest developed after 40, largely in an effort to face an outlook that troubles me even to this day. I’ve known several self-described atheists, but in relationships, discussing disparate beliefs is too often an equal opportunity corrosive, so I found other means of inquiry. I also found that wherever I find atheism, it’s almost axiomatic that there I will also find socialism.
Quite unrelated to my inquiry into atheism, I came to admire the late Christopher Hitchens through his post-9/11 debates with then-British MP George Galloway, a staunch opponent of the second Iraq War and defender of Saddam Hussein. I was vaguely aware of Hitchens’ reputation as a Marxist and apologist for the political left, so I found his positions on the war incongruous. I didn’t bat an eye, however, for the tensions between these two Brits amounted to no mere donnybrook.
This row reached fever pitch in May 2005. Galloway was in D.C. to testify before a U.S. Senate hearing on the U.N. Oil for Food Program. Before the hearing began, Hitchens approached Galloway sporting a Kurdish flag lapel pin. Galloway bristled, calling Hitchens a “drink-sodden former-Trotskyist popinjay,” not a word of which was inaccurate. After that, the rhetorical gloves came off, and in the debates that followed I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hitchens clean Galloway’s clock.
Almost two years later, on the publication of “god is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything” — a title that reminds me of a refrain in Steve Martin’s “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”: “The ‘he’ is always lowercase” — it was no small surprise for me to learn Hitchens was an atheist. I could overlook Hitchens’ leftist and socialist leanings, but atheism?
My background in theism is largely academic. I received my undergraduate degree from Abilene Christian University, where the core requirements back then included 14 hours of Old and New Testament studies, which I dutifully completed with high marks my freshman year. This biblical scholarship left me with two lasting realizations: With few exceptions, like Proverbs 9:10, the Bible teaches nothing that warrants fear, and there are people to whom spirituality is far more than a sociological overview of the world’s many religions and spiritual experiences — something worthy of lifelong focus, abrogation of hubris and continual learning, for starters.
What followed “god is Not Great” was a book-signing tour impersonating a debate circuit, and a two-hour film titled “The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse” in which Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins hold a martinis and scotch fireside chat on the evils of religious belief and the merits of atheism. In the wake of his highly successful book and debate tour, Hitchens took time out to write his memoir.
Shortly after the publication of “Hitch-22” in June 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He perished on Dec. 11, 2011.
Now, five years after his passing, one of Hitchens’ debate opponents, Southern evangelical Larry A. Taunton, has published a book titled “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.”
Taunton’s book is audacious because Hitchens’ regard for Southern evangelicals is well-known. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens quipped on live TV, “If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.” Despite Taunton’s standing as a Southern evangelical, he nevertheless writes that he and Hitchens became friends, a claim I stipulate if accounts in the book are true.
All that aside, while describing Hitchens’ socialist leanings, Taunton makes an interesting observation: “Socialism is atheism masquerading as political philosophy.”
This strikes me as too generous. It removes atheism from individual choice and puts it on a ladder-high shelf with other dusty compendiums on political economic philosophy.
While in Abilene those many years ago, I adopted a metaphor that says a balanced human life is like a scale of three vessels: the intellectual, the physical and the spiritual. This is not an idea of my own making, but I don’t remember where it came from, and I’ve never found a source for it. Sourced or not, the narrative says balanced life is not just a fullness of all three vessels, for balance is not merely volumetric. What you pour in your vessels matters more.
For most, choosing what to pour into the intellectual and physical vessels is a fairly straightforward proposition. Choosing a potable for the spiritual vessel, however, is quite another matter. Even an earnest search can lead to fetid water.
Back in the ’60s, during the summer of love, the Beatles chose the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and while this may have brought about “The White Album,” other experiments with spiritual vessel content before and after were far less benign.
Nowadays, secularism is vogue. If you accept my youthful metaphor, and nothing says you must, an empty vessel delivers imbalance. To a secularist, nontheist or atheist, whichever is preferred, what to pour in the spiritual vessel presents a quandary. Absent theism, what do you do, imbue a government made up of women and men with a stature worthy of propitiation and pour that in?
The answers I’ve heard so far would make a matchbox coffin roomy.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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