Category Archives: Hitchens

This is not The Truman Show

Jim-Carrey-in-The-Truman--001In chapter 6 of God Is Not Great, Hitchens focuses on the twin issues of believers thinking 1) the entire universe is absorbed with their petty interests, and conversely 2) that they are worthless wretches. His problem with this is that our own self-worth as humans is both exaggerated and diminished by these attitudes. He argues that we are not worth nothing – we are worth something, but we are not worth more than anyone else.

This is not The Truman Show

In his characteristically abrasive manner, Hitchens puts his unwavering finger on an uncomfortable home truth. Over many decades the Western church has slipped towards a man-centred view of the reality. We have rightly observed the great love that God has for his children, but over time we have allowed this truth to skew our perspective. It has slowly led to an unhealthy obsession with ourselves, as if God is running around in the sole attempt to make sure that we have the best life and the most fulfilled egos. It is almost as if some believers think they are on The Truman Show, and that the Creator of all things is solely concerned with their single life.

We have swallowed the lie that we are the centre of the universe. We have come to believe that eventually in this life, we must be fulfilled, we must be vindicated, we must be victorious, we must be visible successful. Solipsism is the belief that the whole world exists only in my mind – that you are all figments of my imagination. Many Christians act in such a way that they seem to believe this – that all their earthly desires and needs must be met. Some believers are so desperate for God to show them, or prove to them a particular issue of guidance or confirm some course of action that they are constantly doubting their Father’s care and desperately seeking signs in nature that will prove his love. A sign that he is out there watching over us.

Yet the reality is that God has a providential rule and care over the entire world. Each of the 9 billion people on the planet is under his watchful care (including a few billion animals and the entire natural world). While as believers we hold onto the truth that in the final analysis everything that happens to us will work out for our good, this is not the same as everyone else being bystanders in a play where we are the movie stars. Each person is of immense worth, each person is a beautiful, precious creation – for we all have the same Father. So, I must agree with much of what Hitchens says in these pages, we are not the centre of the universe.

A Glitch in the System

And yet there are times when we experience something that cannot be explained, that perhaps means nothing to those around us, but speaks powerfully to us. It is like when we used to tune in our TV sets manually (remember the days!) and there would be the white noise as the tuner moved through the frequencies. Then suddenly there appears half a picture and then a moment later, perfect clarity. Then it goes again and the white noise is back. Sometimes things happen in life that make us stop and look. They make us take a second glance. A bush on fire was something common in ancient Israel, but not one that didn’t stop burning. It made Moses stop and look. A bright star appears in the sky, nothing unusual in itself, but one that was not there last night and it makes us wonder what it is signalling. Men traveled far to find the child born at the foot of that star.

Before I left for my last trip to Houston I took a last look up into the night sky for what must have been 3 seconds. In those 3 seconds I saw a shooting star. Was that sent from God? Maybe. Do I need it to be from God in order that I know he loves me? No. Do I wonder if he sent it just for me, to show that he was going with me? Yes, I guess I do. Faith doesn’t need to believe the star was sent just for me. It sees the star and thanks God that whoever else saw that in Scotland at 5.00 am on that Sunday morning, I saw it, and I love Him. True faith doesn’t need props; it thrives in the darkest of nights.

The Unmistakable Smile of God

If that was all there was to it then, like Hitchens, I would be tempted to say that we are lost amid the universe’s white noise. No signal to receive, no hope for any meaningful communication. Our only knowledge of God would be limited to recognising he is big and powerful, if he exists at all (Romans 1.20). But underneath this, the most important question: “Is he friend or foe?” remains unresolved for all time. Unless…God himself decides to answer it.

Over time these system glitches gave us clues to what was coming. Like the tap, tap, tapping of Morse code, if you listened for long enough and were quiet enough you could just make out a message. The message was veiled in human frailty; it took on our contours, our fickle shape. For his own reasons he chose to speak to individuals over many years – in many different ways and very infrequently…but he did speak. And what did he say? I….am….coming….soon.the_truman_show_minimalist_poster_by_tchav-d601oxv

And he did come. One day, the invisible became visible, the eternal became time bound. The weakest of signals suddenly clicked into perfect resolution. Far too perfect for many – the image was not what they were expecting. Suddenly it wasn’t God speaking in intermittent Morse code over millennia, it was God in full surround sound, high definition 3D TV. It was overwhelming for the devoted, scandalous for the power hungry, but beautiful for the hurting. God had come and what did he say? What does he think about us? Are we the centre of the universe or a fleck of interstellar stardust?

The answer is too amazing to be so straightforward. We are not the centre of the universe. There is one who is, he is the one who came to speak God’s heart, to be the Word of God, the True-Man. He told us that we are both more precious than we ever hoped and less important than we ever imagined. God has set a value on us of infinite worth, our lives and destinies have immense importance. But they are corrupt to the core. Without remedy this corruption will ultimately crush our intrinsic worth, but when restored we see the true glory shine through.

God has smiled upon us, once for all, for all time, the vast love of God was poured out through his Son. This love was most fully demonstrated through the upside down conclusion to his life. Life through death, mercy through sacrifice, restoration through destruction. The Cross is the Rosetta stone to decode the entire history of God’s communication to mankind. Without it the message will always be just white noise, but, with it as our guide, we see the multicoloured messages he has for us, but not just for me, for all of his children.

New Atheism – A Third Way?

Last year I challenged a Christian magazine about an article that claimed that New Atheism was a passing fad and resorted to insulting the people who  follow this philosophical worldview for how they respond to church leaders and ministers. I wrote a response back challenging their use of offensive language and their conclusions about its transiency. It was not published.

I have decided to post my letter below as it seems to me that many in the church  have put this in the “too difficult” box and instead prefer to focus their efforts on those who are more obviously (to outward observers) aware of their need of a Saviour, while resorting to intellectual and philosophical ping pong with the most vocal and vociferous proponents of NA. As someone who is completely immersed in the secular business world I know that it is not too difficult, but it takes time, commitment, transparency, vulnerability and honesty for people to open up to you and invite you to challenge their beliefs. For most of us this means working alongside them in a full-time secular job. Then people will see that we are not wierd, naive or judgemental and will be curious about our beliefs. This happened again to me this week in a precious conversation with an atheist colleague.

Dear church, there is another way to engage with the challenge of New Atheism than head on debate with unknown and often  virtual “enemies”… and  it is happening right now, but it is happening through those outside the sphere of professional church leadership. Will you listen to, affirm, support and empower your people to follow a Third Way?


Hi there,
I’ve been a subscriber for what must be 10 years now. I have to say however, that I was really disappointed by the latest issue in regards to the article on New Atheism. While I liked the author’s analysis of the different groups impacted by atheistic thinking I was disturbed by the way he spoke about the proponents of new atheism. I know how disrespectful many of them are (you only have to follow Ricky Gervais on twitter to find out), however, calling them names is extremely counterproductive. Will this terminology endorse us to unbelievers or turn them away?
The whole system of the new atheists is based upon them trying to construct a false dichotomy between the rational, logical, intelligent, fair atheists and the irrational, ignorant, wishful thinking believers. By resorting to name calling we only reinforce this false polarisation and strengthen their hand.
I have written and spoken about how I see a third way for breaking this dichotomy – most recently for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers (  and also a sermon in April at my home church in Dundee ( I put the challenge to the church that rather than seeing the secular humanists and militant atheists as the enemy, perhaps we should see the hand of God refining his people through them? I have also written a review of Christopher Hitchen’s memoir Hitch-22 highlighting many of the things I genuinely respected about the guy ( and am blogging my way through his God Is Not Great.
My basic premise is this – the more we see the New Atheists as enemies to be fought against, the more we reinforce their straw man. I am passionately committed to living my life as a model for a different way of engagement. Yes we need to engage and confront their strongholds directly, but we must seek the higher ground, and be willing to give them credit for deconstructing some of our woolly thinking and shoddy illustrations.
I do not accept his statement that we cannot be seen as being “smart, educated and hold views that contradict New Atheism” – by engaging as an equal in the workplace they cannot so easily dismiss me as they would if I worked for the church or a theological or academic institution. During my 10+ years in the workplace I have made many friends who are strong atheists. My passion is to be a living challenge to their neat compartmentalisation – a fair, intelligent, reasonable person, who they can totally relate to on a professional level, while at the same time believing different presuppositions to them. I want to be impossible for them to easily dismiss.
Finally, I completely disagree with his conclusions, at least in the UK (I cannot speak for Australia). New Atheism is not a passing fad, it has strengthened the arm of thousands of nominal atheists who now have credibility for their rejection of Christianity. I live and breathe amongst these people every day and see how it has changed them, given them a new confidence, made them bolder to decry religion in whatever form. The effects, certainly in the UK, will remain in the minds and thought patterns of the thousands of young adults who imbibe this teaching unconsciously. It will reveal itself in the way of life that these people now live and will live for the rest of their lives (unless they are graciously saved), and the way they bring up their future children in an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian society. This is the challenge we face – how do we thrive and not just survive as a persecuted people of God?
Again, I send this not as a critic, but as a friend. I’ve appreciated your ministry over many years as it has helped me mature in the faith. Take this as an appeal from a brother in the common cause of the kingdom.
Every blessing,

Goodbye Christopher Hitchens

Today we lost Christopher Hitchens, a man who loved life and loved words. I recently wrote a reflection on his memoirs Hitch-22 and am currently half way through blogging his book God Is Not Great. I started out not wanting to like this anti-God atheist, but the more I read of him and the more I got to know the person through his writings, the more I was drawn to him. I think that if things had been different, in another day, in another time we might just have been friends…

Here is my collection of articles on his writing:

Hitch-22: Looking for Wilberforce and findings Hitchens

God Is Not Great:

Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!

So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.

Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.

Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.

But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:

  1. His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  2. His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
  3. His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
  4. His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
  5. His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.

Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.

Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness. 

In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.

For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?

There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).

It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.

The Stench of Chronological Snobbery

God Is Not Great, Chapter 5

By chapter 5 Hitchens is well into his stride, his main thesis in this chapter is that religion only flourished in the past due to ignorance and superstition in times of “abysmal ignorance and fear”. In these less enlightened times people could (almost) be excused for believing in fairy tales invented to simultaneously comfort the masses and exert power over them. In an incredible demonstration of speed-assassination he rolls off tabloid-like sound bites on Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Isaac Newton. Each of these men were incredibly deep thinkers and spent years in seeking to understand the world around them through science and faith, but they are assigned to the intellectual scrap heap because they have a theistic worldview. Yes there are things they believed that we look back on now, with the benefit of hindsight, as primitive and simplistic. But to take this anomaly and assign it as a one sentence strap line, or more like epitaph, over their lives is downright dishonest.

In Surprised by Joy CS Lewis reveals his prejudices about the past: “Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.”

The preconception shows itself by a scoffing at anything older than we are, “how less educated they were back then, how foolish” we say. But this attitude forgets two things – firstly that if we had we lived back then our intellectual capacity would have been dwarfed by the names mentioned earlier and secondly, that in 100 years generations to come may well look back on us and wonder how we could have believed such primitive ideas that we think are the height of sophistication today. A little more humility and a great deal more balanced critique of these historical figures is required if our analysis is to stand the test of time. I cannot say it better than Lewis when countering his friend Barfield who had become an Anthroposophist:

“Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

It was at this point that I wondered if Hitchens’ one-liners betrayed his journalistic roots – not taking the time to present the case in its entirety – just lifting certain facts to suit the argument. Hitchens seems content to sacrifice a longer piece of even-handed commentary to the quick flashes of an eloquent assault. I began to wonder if Hitchens is only ever able to skim the surface of the arguments, scoring quick points in a tae kwon do style attack, but never plumbing the depths of an Augustine to find the real person behind the fictional caricature. He sums it all up by saying that “we have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Granted, he thinks it is mostly learning from their mistakes!

But wait! There is someone who Hitchens would hold up as a critical thinker of a past century. William Ockham lived in the early 14th century and is most famous for his “Ockham’s Razor” which bears his name – this view describes the attempt to “disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause”. Essentially this means he sought to use logic to understand cause and effect behind religious faith. Thus, Hitchens presents Ockham as an orthodox, if controversial, Christian thinker who challenged the religious thinking of his day. In his search to simplify his preconceptions and find a logical explanation to his faith, Ockham realised that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. Moreover, in being obsessed with tracing back the cause and effect of each assumption he eventually comes to the wonder “Who created the Creator? Who designed the Designer?” This is music to Hitchens’ ears –a religious philosopher who unwillingly exposes the problem of the origin of God.

However, what Hitchens and Ockham fail to realise is that the “natural law” of cause and effect is not law which binds a free God – it is the expression of a created logical world.  Just as within a jigsaw there are inbuilt rules over which piece will fit with which neighbouring piece, but the designer of the jigsaw is not limited by these rules. So too God stands outside of our laws of nature and philosophical assumptions. Yes, within his created world, he has appointed cause and effect to underpin the world, but he is not bound by such spatial-bound sequential laws.

It’s the same with time – it is pointless to ask who or what existed before God, for he stands outside of time, as an eternal being. Yes we can use logic and reason to understand something of God and his world, but at one point we must put down these primitive tools and accept the knowledge of God through his self-disclosed revelation. Not that this divine revelation is illogical or unreasonable, but that logic and reason are limited in their ability, they can only take us so far. It’s a bit like using a step-ladder to reach the stars – it’s in the right direction, but ultimately futile. So our use of logic is good and proper, but they are not sufficient in themselves.

We need to realise that our knowledge of God would have been extremely limited had he not chosen to reveal himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20, the world around us testifies to his divine wisdom and unlimited power. But it is unable to reveal his character and attributes, for that we needed him to break the silence and speak to us. But even as God reveals that he is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34.6), he is still unknowable on a personal level due to our corrupted spiritual hearts. For the knowledge of God must be both experiential and doctrinal, and like oil and water, a pure and holy God and impure, unholy people don’t mix.

We think knowing something is as simple as firing up Google or Wikipedia, but what if I asked you how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal? Do you know how it feels to win a gold medal? Some do, but it’s not something I can know unless I put in the effort, compete and win – there are conditions to be met before we can experience that knowledge. So too with God, we are spiritually incapable of knowing him until he cleanses us and repairs our hearts. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross – making it possible for sinful corrupt creatures to know a holy and pure God. Wining the medal for us, competing on our behalf, and as we become united with him, we come to know what it feels like to win.

It’s not enough to understand and even believe the facts about God (for even the Devil does this), we must experience an awakening of our spirit to a new relationship with him – to be born again in our mind, soul and spirit. Logic and reason can help us to begin to fathom how he made it possible for us to know him, but they can never bring us into that relationship. Only the Spirit of God acting in the humbled heart through the mediatory work of Jesus can create such a knowledge.

Caution: Religion can be hazardous to your health

Review of Chapter 4 “God Is Not Great” by C. Hitchens

Blazened across every packet of cigerettes is a warning: smoking can be harazardous to your health, smoking kills or smoking causes lung cancer. It’s as if the powers-that-be think that if only we realised the consequences of smoking we would stop doing it. But as every nicotine addict can tell you, the warnings are put there for everyone else. In this chapter of God Is Not Great Hitchens wants to slap a similar banner across the entrance to every church, synagogue and mosque.

He goes full out to illustrate the danger that religion poses to our physical and mental health through a series of stinging anecdotes. He highlights how religious leaders have responded to medical advances in areas such as polio, AIDS and cervical cancer. In one example he cites religious leaders in Africa promoting ignorance and mistrust regarding AIDS treatment in order to maintain their position of power. He powerfully argues that when it comes to prophylactic (i.e. preventative) treatment of medical conditions, religion has not covered itself in glory.

As I read this chapter there is little one can say to argue against the black picture painted by Hitchens. It is too true that many heinous crimes have been committed and promoted by the church in an attempt to enforce moral obedience. I am left reflecting that the church is not good in dealing with those who reject its teachings to embark on their own. Too often we have absolved ourselves of our responsibilities of care for even the most rebellious child. Nevertheless, it remains true that the choices we make have consequences we cannot escape. It is the church’s desire to save others from these consequences that motivates its moral stance.

It seems to me that over the years our improved understanding of biological systems has enabled science to increasingly mitigate the consequences of our moral choice. For example, it used to be the case that sexual promiscuity would inevitably lead to unwanted pregnancy, and that in some cases the fear of this would be enough of a deterrent to prevent the activity. However, science has, perhaps inadvertently, steadily removed the natural consequences of this action. Hitchens wants the church to celebrate in this freedom and join in the promotion of sexual liberty. He wants a God who will allow us to live as we please and still bless us in whatever we do.

But are our actions now free from all consequences? What about the trail of broken relationships, loneliness, betrayal, and emotional damage caused by one night stands? What pill do we take to take away the pain of a broken heart? How do we remove the present consequences of our past actions? We cannot. And we cannot expect the church to only be concerned about a person’s health, when their lifestyle has greater consequences. We are not a hospital, where treatment is free at the point of care, no questions asked. Our concern for our fellow person is holistic – mind, body and soul.

So, we are left wondering, how should the church treat those who choose not to follow its teaching? What responsibility does it have towards those who reject its core beliefs? At the heart of the issue is this question – what is more important people or doctrine? People, I can hear you cry. But not so fast, sometimes even enlightened, educated, civilised people need protecting from themselves. Which parent would allow their child to experiment with power tools? Which father would allow his 6 year old daughter to walk the dark streets at night? So too with God, from his vantage point he sees where our choices are taking us, and wants to protect us from our own decisions. What is our sexual liberation producing in our land? Are we really freer, satisfied and fulfilled? Or rather are we more isolated, shallow, fragmented and detached? The pervasive inability of young men to commit to one woman for life gives the answer.

I agree with Hitchens that the church is not good at being pragmatic. We are best at dealing with black and white, truth and error, right and wrong. By leaving specific but relatively broad moral principles to live by, God has delegated to each individual a certain degree of responsibility to use our understanding alongside his eternal truths to build a biblical framework for life. Unfortunately the church has sometimes not had the same confidence in delegating responsibility for matters of conscience and this has often resorted in it erring on the side of caution rather than give room for individual freedom.

I think it was Stephen Covey who said: “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions”. Like any smoker will tell you – we are completely free to leave the cigerette pack on the counter and walk away, but sometimes the promise of guaranteed immediate pleasure outweighs a potential risk of severe penalty. May we choose the way of wisdom and the better path, leading to the healthiest of all possible life – eternal life for evermore.

You aren’t what you eat

“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, Chapter 3

In this chapter Hitchens rallies against the ridiculous (as he sees them) dietary laws of the Jewish people. What kind of God would make a monster of the pig? It seems so outrageous and unreasonable that Hitchens investigates our relationship with the pig to see if this can provide any clues as to why God (or as he sees it the Jewish and Muslim traditions), came up with such a strange decision.

He begins by wondering whether pigs are intrinsically distasteful. While he admits that pigs can be very messy and quite unpleasant in confined conditions, if they are given space and healthy surroundings they can be quite civil animals. This surely cannot be the reason for the divine injunction. Why would this be when the pig is one of our closest cousins (he argues)? Could there be a rational explanation? He puts forward two: firstly that pig meat in hot climates can go off very quickly and become infested. He discards this one as unsatisfying and considers a second more subtle reason.

For this explanation he considers the similarities between humans and pigs. He covers a range of topics from the classic allegory Animal Farm to the fact that the pig heart is one of the few species that is able to be transplanted into a human. Indeed, it is our similarity to the pig that he believes gives us a clue as to our vilification of it. He notes that “the look of the pig, and the taste of the pig, and the dying yells of the pig, and the evident intelligence of the pig, were to uncomfortably reminiscent of the human.” He suggests that the pig reminds us too much of ourselves and echoes back to the dark times of cannibalism when the human race had a perverted appetite for human flesh. It is against this cannibalistic instinct, hidden deep within us, that we are reacting against when we demonise the pig. Hitchens argues that it is our “repressed desire to participate” in this vile practise, that is at the heart of our hatred. And he concludes by making the sweeping statement that “in microcosom, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.”

But could there be an alternative explanation for this prohibition? Does it really date back to some sort of primitive Freudian desire, or is there a more straightforward, if less human-centred, explanation? If we look back to the origins of the prohibition against pigs in the Jewish tradition, it can be traced right back to the first rules laid down by God for his rescued people in Leviticus 11.7: “And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you”. Note that the pig is described as unclean – not evil! Other mammals described as unclean include the rabbit and camel.

This chapter in Leviticus sets out the dietary laws for the Israelites, other chapters cover directives on the way they dressed (not two types of cord), treated illness (e.g. skin disease, chapter 13-14), treated buildings (e.g. damp on walls), cleansed cooking tools (e.g. pots). Many other laws also covered morally charged issues, such as not charging interest on loans, sexual purity, freedom for slaves and manslaughter. Together with the laws on the ceremonial sacrifice of animals covered in chapters 1-7 they formed the means by which God chose to set apart his people as his own. Indeed, the phrase “set apart” is literally what holy means. By following these regulations that covered every part of life, everyone would be able to see what it meant to be God’s people.

As such, all of these laws were intended to reinforce each other to provide a physical illustration of the life of God’s community on earth – to show the world what being God’s chosen people meant. Some of them reflected deeper significance that was repeated by Jesus and the apostles, others were temporary – particularly the food regulations. In Acts chapter 10 Peter is directed by God in a vision to eat every animal as they are all clean (v9-13). God himself is overruling his previous commandment and nullifying the dietary regulations. Why?

Interwoven with Peter’s vision is the story off Cornelius, a man who is told to go and find Peter by an angel (v1-6). Once Peter meets Cornelius and realises that God has sent him to hear the good news of Jesus, the light eventually dawns, that God is using the distinction between clean and unclean food as a tangible metaphor for the distinction that had historically been made between the Jews and Gentiles, the former being clean and the latter unclean. By declaring all food clean, and by sending his angel to Cornelius (a gentile) to direct him to Peter, God was telling his people that he was making all people acceptable to him through the death and resurrection of his son (v28 & 34-48).

Thus, we come back to our question – why did God make the pig unclean? And why did he do this, if one day he was going to make all animals clean? In other words, why bother to establish dietary laws that lasted for hundreds of year, if he always intended to make them all clean? Was there really any difference between the various groups of animals or not? In answering this question we need to keep this chapter in Acts in our mind. What if God chose to use an issue which was inherently morally neutral and arbitrarily designated animals on either side in order to, hundreds of years later, bring down the dividing line? What if he did all this in order to generate the kind of cultural shock that was necessary to awake his people to the coming spiritual shock of the acceptance of the gentiles? This would mean that there is nothing inherently unclean about the pig – it was a physical illustration for God to use to make a more significant point.

But, I can hear you ask; why not just accept gentiles right back there in Leviticus? Why keep them out only to later bring them in? This is a big question, but in summary it all has to do with this demonstration of God’s holiness. While the Israelites were God’s people, they were never intended to be the only nation that God would accept – they were to model the type of kingdom behaviour that God would require of his people. Later this model would be broadened to the whole world, as now individuals, not nations are called to model this kingdom living. The changing role of the pig in God’s plan may seem a strange one, but it forms an important shift from the national to the personal; from the outward to the inward; from a focus on what we eat to who we are. The story of the pig teaches us that life is not about what we eat, as if that could make us clean or unclean. The important thing is not what you take into your mouth, but what comes out of it – for this reveals the true nature of your heart.

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7.18-23

Religion – virtue or vice?

“God Is Not Great” – Chapter 2

Is religion a force for good in the world, or a hindrance to mankind’s attempts to create a civil society and embrace one another? Or to put it another way, do we wish for the type of world that John Lennon longs for, where there is: “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace”. Well if you needed convincing that religion is the bane of the world, then this chapter is for you. The way Hitchens seeks to do this is by giving examples of religious groups repressing and imposing their views on the non-religious.

He would not mind if religious people would be content to have their own faith and keep to themselves, but, to his intense annoyance, he admits that “the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.” In framing his argument he discusses a range of examples where various religions have imposed their views, either legally or criminally on their neighbours.

He begins with the example of Ireland, and the debate over the legalisation of divorce. A proposal to legalise divorce was brought to the government and the conservative Catholic Church fought this attempt to change the law. Hitchen’s objects to this attempt to legislate morality and enforce one particular group’s moral views on the rest of society. He wants each to have the right to follow their own conscience rather than impose their views on those who don’t share their faith.

This is a good point and I agree that most of the time this is a worthy objective. However, his argument raises the interesting question of who should decide the moral laws in society. We presume that in a democratic society it should be a majority decision. But we know that a vocal and militant minority are able to change significant ethical laws to their own outcome. Given this is often how politics works, is it only the secular humanists who are allowed to lobby for a change in the law? Don’t also the conservative groups have this same right to lobby to maintain the law? Let the debate be taken to the public square and each side make their claims to the right to impose their views on all of society. But let’s not restrict the rights of any group, just because they do not share our ethical code, to fight for what they believe. Both groups’ positions are underpinned by a worldview – one theistic, one humanistic. Each has the right to present their case and argue their points.

He then moves on to a series of examples where one religious group has exercised repression, violence or even massacred another religious group. His general point through all of this is religion is the root and cause of these events. From Belfast to Beirut, from Bombay to Belgrade, he argues that religion is a sociological virus, corrupting mankind and causing various groups to hate and kill each other. I am going to pass over the obvious argument of the less than unblemished record of atheism as a potential cause of war and social unrest (e.g. Stalinist Russia). Instead I want to focus on the cause and effect relationship between religion and war. Is religious violence an abuse of, or a natural outcome of, religion? For this I can only speak for Christianity, as this is my own faith. So, the question becomes: where the Crusades, Irish terrorism etc, a natural out working of the teachings of the bible, or are they an anomaly, an unfortunate stain on an otherwise peaceful and peacemaking religion?

Well, if we go to the source material the answer from the bible is clear – Paul states in 1 Timothy 2.1-2 that we should pray for our government and monarchy, as God wants a peaceful and ordered society. Also in Romans 13.1- 7 he again states that authorities are placed their by the order of God, and to rebel against them is to rebel against God. Peter says the same thing in his letters, and Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their enemies and seek their good, not seek to hurt them. Strikingly, the context for the famous “turn the other cheek” saying is a man on his way to an unjust and violent “religious” death, not an academic in his dusty study at a quaint university.

So, if there is no justification for such action in the original teachings, why do these things happen? Because of the corruption in the human heart! Even some of the first people to hear the message of Jesus sought to make financial gain from the message (Acts 8.18&19), which is only one step away from seeking political power through the cause. But as well as realising there is no justification for these actions in the bible, it is also important to understand that the abuse of a substance does not invalidate the worth of this substance. Take alcohol for example, in Scotland the negative social impact of alcoholism is enormous, but does this make alcohol an evil and degrading substance? No, in itself it is neither good nor bad, but how we use it determines the worthiness. Similarly, the violence sometimes seen with animal rights groups does not automatically invalidate the worthiness of the cause. Nevertheless, I agree that in the words of Jesus himself “you will know the tree by its fruit”.

My challenge to Hitchens is this – if you find mouldy fruit you need to check if it’s the tree or a maggot inside the fruit. Thus, the effects of a religion need to be assessed to see if this is an abuse of the faith or a genuine out working of it, and then taken alongside the positive effects of this same religion. In conclusion, all worldviews whether they include God or exclude him can, when used to serve our own purposes, produce devastating results. At these times we must then seek to understand whether this is an appropriate application of this worldview or an abuse of it. Only then can we determine the moral worthiness of the worldview and decide whether this invalidates its claims to our allegiance.

A new blog series!

Over the next few months I am going to be posting my reflections on a Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. I have put the first one up and will post the next one next week. I’m really enjoying the read so far and although it’s hard hitting, a lot of what he says makes you stop and think.

Hope you enjoy – feel free to leave any (constructive) comments about the new series, or the new look website.

A Passionate Plea

“God Is Not Great” Chapter 1

Right from the first page Hitchens reveals that his book is not a cold calculated critique of religion but an effervescent boiling pot of passion. This is something Hitchens feels extremely passionate about and in his passion his prose quickly crosses disparate themes. He briefly describes his religious upbringing before delivering a mesmerising array of accusations and charges against his nemesis – the ignorant & deceived religious.

Two encounters in particular are highlighted as being the pivotal points in his young life – one being a less than logical explanation of why the grass is green by his primary teacher “God made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes” and the other a masterclass in nominalism by his headmaster: “You may not see the point in all this faith now, but you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones.” Not surprisingly these misguided attempts to answer the big questions in life of creation and suffering and death drove the rational Hitchens away from his religious heritage.

His atheism is a passionate rejection of all the alternatives, seeing religion as at best wishful thinking and at worst a source of manipulation and corruption. He offers realism not hope, science and reason not faith and beliefs. And he speculates that “it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better towards each other and not worse.”  His argument is that it is better to admit you only have a few thousand days to live and get on with it as best you can than pretend there is more to it and ruin everyone else’s experience.

Throughout this first chapter Hitchens repeatedly presents his polar extremes – the rational, fair, honest atheist and the irrational, ignorant, unstable religious zealot. This is not a book of balance and well thought out reasoned arguments, it is a force ten gale in the wind-tunnel of atheistic teaching. No sooner are objections to religion brought up, they are summarily dismissed and ridiculed. He even states that anyone who is certain of his belief “and who claims divine warrant for his certainty belongs now to the infancy of our species”, as if the atheist has evolved beyond the need for emotional props. As if it is ok to be absolutely certain of your belief if it comes from your own neurons, but not if you believe it has been made known to you by God.

Although I struggle to like the way he says it, there is much in this chapter that I have to agree with. When he says things like “religion is man-made” and “we believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion” I can say a hearty Amen! Religion (without revelation) is man-made and it is an indisputable fact that religion has caused many of the worlds personal & national conflicts, even to this day. And I have many kind and generous friends who do not have any religious beliefs. However, as someone who considers themselves fair, rational and honest I must object to his straw man that he presents in this chapter. If there is one error that is systemic throughout this chapter, it is that he lumps all faith into the same skip and then takes the worst examples and presents them as the norm.

For all the abuses and excesses of religious people it is a bold claim that Hitchens makes in this chapter – to pronounce on his own authority that there has never been and will never be, anywhere in the world, to any person, any interaction with the a higher power. Its one thing if you don’t believe in such a power or being, but how can you know, given our limited knowledge, that every single person who has ever claimed different is either deluded, deceptive or down-right dishonest.

Moreover, all of Hitchens’ arguments would come crashing down if there had ever been one single encounter of a human with the divine. This is the one indestructible virus that threatens to erase his entire case. My question to Hitchens is: say this encounter happened to him, then how would a fair, honest, logical person respond to such an encounter? He would no doubt argue that this is impossible because he, she or it doesn’t exist, but even Hitchens admits in this chapter that “some problems will never be resolved…and some things are indefinitely unknowable”.  So while clinging to his certainty of a materialistic worldview, he still wants to leave the door open for mystery, as long as that mystery is defined on his terms.

In response to Hitchens I am forced to make a passionate plea – that it is possible to have an encounter with a higher power whilst retaining your reason. That it is possible to have a consistent, reasoned worldview that is not purely materialistic. How we know the certainty of whether these encounters really happened, or whether we like what is revealed about this power by these encounters is a different objection. The choice is not between rational atheism and irrational religion, but between a materialistic atheism and a reasonable faith. It is a faith where reason is its servant not its master, for we recognise that reason is limited in its understanding and often misdirected in its bearings. A faith that is reasonable not because it leaves no room for doubt, but because there is sufficient evidence in the truth of that belief to warrant a trust in the one who asks for your hand.