Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?
By Eric Reitan
February 4, 2010
Not long ago, Christopher Hitchens—pugilistic author of “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”—sat down for an interview with retired Unitarian minister (and self-professed “liberal Christian”) Marilyn Sewell. . . .
[In “God Is Not Great,”] Hitchens seems to take “the numinous” to refer to nothing more than a feeling of awe or wonder, which according to Hitchens can (and should) be inspired by purely natural phenomena without any invocation of the supernatural. But in his interview with Sewell, Hitchens goes further. When asked to talk about it he replies that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”
More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here-to wit, that “the numinous” refers to the sense that there’s something more to our existence than just the material world? Something…dare we call it…supernatural?
Sewell presses on, explaining why she finds a close alignment between the numinous in Hitchens’ sense and her own experience of religion. Moments later when asked about “the soul”—inspired by his oft repeated claim that “literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and soul”—Hitchens responds:
“It’s what you might call ‘the x-factor’—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.”
Were he not so quick to follow up by deriding religion once again, one might take him here for a deeply religious man. . . .
For me, the essence of religion is the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous. . . . And this may be what makes Hitchens, for all his bombast and pugilistic excesses, the best of the so-called New Atheists. While he refuses to call the human quest for the transcendent religious, he also explicitly rejects imposing artificial constraints on that quest. And this means that, in the end, he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas, dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.