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Hitchens: We No Longer See The Stars At Night

Peter Hitchens, a Christian convert (revert?) and surviving brother of world’s second-most famous atheist, ruminates on life in the post-Christian West. Excerpt: Q: Do you feel that the time of places like the U.S. and the U.K. being Christian nations is completely a thing of the past? A: I fear it is, yes. The only thing […]

Peter Hitchens, a Christian convert (revert?) and surviving brother of world’s second-most famous atheist, ruminates on life in the post-Christian West. Excerpt:

Q: Do you feel that the time of places like the U.S. and the U.K. being Christian nations is completely a thing of the past?

A: I fear it is, yes. The only thing that’s holding up the recognition of that is the afterglow of Christianity. There is a continued assumption in people’s lives, even though they aren’t specifically and explicitly Christians themselves … People are still governed by assumptions that are Christian, but they no longer acknowledge the roots from which they come. In the end, you separate any plant from its roots, the plant will die. But there will be a period, depending on the size and age of the plant, during which it will appear to be still alive. But it has undoubtedly died at the roots. I think as the originally Christian societies of the world become less so, it’s going to be harder to believe. That will just be the case. And it will take considerably more courage than anyone in my generation ever had to face.

Q: Some people would say it might be a good thing if we stop being a Christian nation—that we can still hold to the truth, that we don’t have to legislate our own morals on a larger group that doesn’t necessarily hold to them. Do you agree?

A: I think society has to have a fundamental agreement about what its morals are and what the origins of those morals are. You can have a more or less chaotic and lawless arrangement, or you can have a sort of armed truce. But what you can’t have is a functioning, inventive, lively civilization unless it has pretty much agreed on a shared foundation for what it believes is good.

Q: So what do you say then to people who would say—and a good many of them do—“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?”

A: I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

I’ll put this very crudely: It’s like buying a very expensive piece of equipment and trying to work it by actually looking at the manual and doing the opposite of what it says. It won’t work. If you don’t acknowledge that there is a manual or that anybody else knows more about it than you do, all kinds of things will happen which you might even conceivably think are good but they wouldn’t be. You wouldn’t know that because you would have tossed aside the very concept of there being an absolute right or wrong way to use this incredibly complex, delicate, finely engineered piece of equipment.

To further illustrate this point, Hitchens describes our civilization thus:

The best metaphor for the state of mind in which we find ourselves is this is the first generation of the human race which doesn’t generally see the stars at night. It has blotted them out with street lamps and car headlights and everything else. You simply can’t see the stars in most places where human beings are concentrated, and, in the same way, the triumph of consumerism and growth and the temporary joys of pleasure as a substitute for happiness blotted out the metaphorical stars of religious faith. It’s very hard to expect people who can’t see the stars to examine the significance of the stars or see their beauty.

Beautifully put. I believe the regular commentator on this blog who goes by the name of Thursday has focused on this point earlier, based on the evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce G. Charlton’s views on animism and how modernity has severely damaged our ability to be aware of the existence of the numinous. Charlton:

It is one of the distinctive features of Western contemporary life that, while pleasures are widely available (albeit at a price), there is almost universally a sense of alienation. Alienation is the feeling that life is ‘meaningless’, that we do not belong in the world.

But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people feel at one with the world. This perspective is a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter-gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a unified world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships.

Charlton discusses the unsuitability of animistic thinking in the modern world, but holds out the possibility that animistic modes may be recovered. In a blog post, Charlton, who is a Christian convert, writes that it must be recovered:

Modern Christianity equals Ancient Christianity minus Animism.

Christianity was added-to animism: that is how it was for 1500 years: the fullness of Christianity includes animism.

From the end of the Middle Ages animism was progressively, relentlessly subtracted from life; and from Christianity: the impulse was secular, Christianity merely went along with it.

Christianity remains after the subtraction of living-ness from the universe; Christianity remains in a lifeless and mechanical universe; but what remains is indeed remains. Incomplete, ruined.

Christianity without its animistic fullness remains fully effectual but becomes purely salvific.

Without the animistic universe this worldly life becomes merely a preparation for the next: A life in a dead universe awaiting death.

The physical world, in other words, must be re-enchanted. Interestingly, the ethnobiologist Wade Davis, in his wonderful book The Wayfinders, makes a similar argument in defense of animistic thinking from a secular perspective. Anyway, do read the entire Hitchens Q&A, which appears in Relevant magazine.