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The Most Pressing Question

What is it, finally, that divides the believer from the atheist? The question comes to mind in observing renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens endure, in full public view, metastatic esophageal cancer. In a remarkable Vanity Fair column, then in an interview with the vapid Anderson Cooper on CNN, and once again in a videotaped interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Hitchens has movingly described his condition, his experience of chemotherapy, and many other aspects of his illness.

But the statements that have sparked the greatest discussion are the ones in which Hitchens declares that those religious believers who hope he will undergo a deathbed conversion are bound to be disappointed. Any such conversion, if it happened, would be the product of a brain consumed by cancer and a body wracked by pain. It should not be taken seriously, in other words, as a genuine expression of the beliefs and desires of the man known as Christopher Hitchens. It should instead be dismissed as the deluded ramblings of someone driven out of his right mind by suffering and disease. And the statements of a man in such a state tell us nothing worth knowing, either about him or about God.

Hitchens would be gratified to know that his comments reminded me of a writer we both revere: Holocaust-survivor Primo Levi. More specifically, Hitchens’ statements reminded me of how, during my time working for the theoconservative journal First Things, a devoutly Christian colleague reacted to a passage of Levi’s that I had admired for years as an incomparably powerful expression of stoicism, courage, and integrity.

Here is Levi, from The Drowned and the Saved:

I entered the Lager (Auschwitz) as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience of the Lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my nonbelief. It has prevented me, and still prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice. . . . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death . . . naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the “commission” that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

When I referred to this passage in the First Things offices, my pious colleague reacted with visible disdain, which he conveyed in the following way: In his fear and trembling before annihilation, Levi felt for the first time in his life the call of God. And how did he respond to this call? By refusing it. And why? Because it would have embarrassed him. Far from being admirable, the statement was an almost demonic expression of the deadly sin (and singularly Christian vice) of pride.

So a Christian considers pride a sin and a (Jewish) atheist does not. That’s hardly news. But my colleague’s—and Levi’s, and Hitchens’—positions were actually about more than this. At a deeper level they were about anthropology and what be called the epistemology of religious truth.

In their statements, Levi and Hitchens imply that a person’s capacity to determine the truth depends on his or her ability to think calmly, coolly, dispassionately. It depends on the capacity to bracket aspects of one’s subjectivity (like intense emotions, including fear of imminent death) that might distort one’s judgment or obstruct the effort to achieve an unbiased, objective view of the world in itself. This is the outlook of the scientist (Levi was a chemist), the philosopher, the champion of rational enlightenment, the secular intellectual and social critic. From this standpoint, the terrified, irrational effusions of a man facing his own extinction are no more to be trusted than a blind man’s account of a crime scene: each witness lacks the capacity to perceive, make sense of, and accurately judge the essential facts. Far more reliable are the sober, critical reflections of a man in good health, protected from danger, insulated from threats to his well being. That, for Levi and Hitchens, is a man at his best and most capable of determining the truth of things.

Religious believers—including my devoutly religious colleague at First Things—make very different assumptions about the proper path to truth and what constitutes a man at his best. As Rod Dreher noted in a post about Hitchens’ recent statements, a Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries. That we greedily crave good things for ourselves—many of which (fame, fortune, honor, glory) only the luckiest will ever acquire, and some of which (happiness unmixed with sorrow) no one will ever enjoy within the limits of our finite lives.

For the religious person, human beings are at their best when they accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration. Human beings are at their worst, by contrast, when they deny the fact of their frailty, deluding themselves into believing in their self-sufficiency. (This is where the critique of pride comes in.)

Levi and Hitchens reside in the first camp, believing that they are most themselves when they are healthy and free—at the height of their human powers; whatever they may feel or say (or be tempted to say) in moments of weakness or degradation deserves to be dismissed as inauthentic. But the devout reside in the second camp, insisting that human beings are truest to themselves—most authentic—when they are most vulnerable.

Which of them is right? That is perhaps the most pressing human question—and the one that points to what might be the deepest, most intractable division between the believer and the atheist.