[L-R: Angel, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and my son, Tom, in Florence, Italy.]

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


The late Christopher Hitchens was like that dread baptismal tank. I cowered before him.

Sure, I admired his courage and his skillful prolificacy—I saw him as a great if often wrongheaded journalist of ideas—but flinched at his rage and at his sheer meanness. Especially regarding the straw-man figure of God he erected in order to mount an attack in the shadow of his intellectual superior, the atheist evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

As a friend said, “It is significant that Hitchens and Dawkins are both British.” In the European way, England mixed religion and the State—which is to say, it mixed religion and politics. While established religions tend to become political and prideful entities, formally merging them with politics—the most cravenly primate of necessary human activities—is bad medicine. And, besides, the two world wars so ravaged Europe that they put the quietus on any glimmer of a heavenly God.

Europe, by and large, is now spiritually spent for at least those two reasons.

But whatever his case, Hitchens seemed willfully, belligerently, gleefully tone deaf and clueless about religion. And I imagine him contemptuous even of spirituality—just, to him, more watery weak-kneed warm and fuzzies covering terror at death. Admit it, the disciple of Dawkins seemed to sneer, it’s all about our selfish genes. He called himself, in contrast to the deluded religious, a man of the Enlightenment. He failed to see that the principles he worshipped flowed from the same deep well as religion and were fostered by religion.

But I must explain what I believe, and that’s hard and it’s tricky.

The least of it is that mentioning religion positively, let alone invoking God, now inflames most people. The bigger issue is that my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain. Hitchens, along with those whom I imagine as true believers, including more than a few in my extended family, might see me at best as a soft-headed New Ager. At worst, they’d peg me as just another secular humanist.

But to Hitchens I’d also be a cowardly atheist who can’t man up like him and look squarely at life’s ugly reality—that it’s a bitch and then we die—and so dresses up his secular humanism with fairy tale garnish about a man in the sky.

That’s true only if you accept one literalist notion of God. If you don’t assume the adult task of defining God for yourself.

The Jews, who discovered God 3,000 years ago, did place him in the sky above their temples. He was an angry coot, as we know, a parental super ego sore displeased with his brood. But even though I believe only metaphorically in that God, I see profound significance in the Jews’ discovery and in their moving God into the sky, lifting one God above a welter of demigods.

Their insight was of historic and evolutionary importance.

[See also the previous, part one of this post. Next: I open a fresh can of whup-ass on Hitch and define my God.]


  • Beth Kephart says:

    what a brave and beautiful series.

  • David Owen says:

    Sock it to him, Richard!

  • Sean Crumlin says:

    Nice writing. Lucid, generous and heartfelt.

    Personally, I find Hitchens smarter than Dawkins. Dawkins is a second rate school teacher, stuffed with fact and opinion, his disdain reflecting his terminal lack of insight. Hitchens is the smartest, wildest kid in the class, intent on outraging everybody and destined to flame out, probably sooner than later.

  • deanna says:

    Thanks for your refreshing, “my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain.” If only we might each be allowed to say so, and to take time to work at doing it. I’m now reading, for the first time, C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and I’m recalling my need to read real writing more often. Not that there’s anything wrong with blogging, but…anyway, your post is a nice compliment to reading that “notion of God” work by Lewis.

  • Will Perry says:

    It seems to me that theists tend to invent their god in their own image. Conservatives create a conservative god to bow down before, liberals and liberal god and each can find their own pieces of scripture to bolster there now righteous god. May be this the path you tread. Well, if that’s the case, in one sense Id say good luck to you, but the trouble is these things get out of hand and before you know it, the god you invented is starting to tell me how to live, how to have sex, who to have sex with, how long to grow my beard. And that, I’m not happy about. That’s what made Hitch so upset, me too. A few days ago a Jewish neighbour stopped me in the street and in some urgency asked me to turn his heating on by flicking a switch! I obliged. I thought it was all very silly but I reflected that his way did me no harm. And of course as a Jew he had no interest in getting me to live as he does, but a Christian might and a Muslim almost certainly would. I’m from London by the way, and for as long as I can remember, in British politics, we don’t do god. Even the right wing – don’t do god. Its a hobby that some do on Sundays although preciously few these days. A recent survey shows that nearly 50% of Brits are of no denomination and amongst the under 35s 70% said they were non believers, so things are on the up over here. Good luck in finding your god, You might well find him by looking in a mirror. But might I suggest you keep him to yourself. After all you can’t have too much of a good thing.

  • Love your writing style. …juicy. For me God is only worth knowing…all the thinking in the world about the divine does not become the experience of it. hugs. Though thinkings on God can be fun. Lori Ann

  • John Wylie says:

    Well done, Richard. No religion in British politics? That why my ancestors got the hell out of there. You are the harbinger of a passing anti-God fashion. The main question here is where exactly does the power of religion and specifically of God come from. Why did all those British Kings want to associate themselves with the power of Him? Fear of death? A Freudian projection? Ignorance and Awe at the unknown universe? Opiate of the masses? These are all bankrupt ideas. Do you think justice and morality is a concoction of rational culture any more than, say, sex is. So, please, someone give me a believable reason for God’s power in history if there is nothing there.

    • Will Perry says:

      I hope you are wrong. I hope that a rational world view will someday prevail and this stupid superstition will waste to nothing, but I’ll be food for worms long before then. Europe has had a bloody time since the Romans took it and brought with them their capricious god. Non-believers were given short shrift and often a belly full of hot lead. But did we have a morality before Jesus piggy-backed in on their shoulders? You bet we did.

      Yes, Europe has had a bloody time of it. And through most of that time under theocratic or quasi-theocratic states. Jefferson and Paine give the US a chance to escape this horror, a chance to diminish the roll of religion in the state. It was a great heritage, of which I’m Jealous. Its a heritage I fear is being squandered.

      Look around. There are still many theocratic states, perhaps the greatest is Iran, but don’t even think out side the theocratic box if you value your life. North Korean has an immortal leader, his grand son Kim Jong- Un is semi divine, its the same there – perhaps worse. Religion leads to totalitarianism, oppression, cruelty and hate. It poisons everything.

      Why? Because in our desperate yearning to give our lives value we make ourselves god. When our god is insulted or threatened so are we. We get angry and stamp our feet. Everyone MUST worship ME. And if I’m too small, I’ll join with others and we will make a god of ourselves together and he will be mighty and will reap justice against those who worship other gods.

  • Will,

    I can’t agree with you—except regarding the brilliance of Jefferson and Paine in separating church and state—but think you have made your case well, and I appreciate your taking the time to do so.

    Incidentally, our Constitution is a manifestation of God as I define it. As Rilke said, God is a direction, and that document has helped move us and the world in a more godly direction. On our Great Seal, Jefferson and Franklin depicted the Israelites following a cloud and fire toward the Promised Land. Our founders knew their biblical history, but, in my view, that was a metaphor for America as much as it was about anything.

    The separation of church and state here led to a flowering of faith. But woe betide us if the tiny minority of right-wing fundamentalists ever succeeds in merging the two. We would, as you said before, have too much of a good thing. That’s almost an unthinkable event, though, in part because the direction of American faith is nondenominational. I am not the only Yank trying to define God for himself; the majority of Americans define themselves as spiritual but not aligned with any denomination.

    • Will Perry says:


      Thank you for your reply. I came to your site while looking for obituaries for Hitch. He made a profound impression on me a few years ago when I was in the US working in various universities teacher Shakespeare. His loss, is and will be for some time, a blow to those who hope that reason will win out out over religion.. I read elsewhere that when a great tree falls in a forest, a hundred smaller trees find their light and grow to replace it.

      I had a great time in the US and was treated with generosity and much kindness. But i became very aware that there was a hideous right wing Christian element in your politics that reminds me of the Taliban. And the thought of this element coming into power sends a shiver down my spine. Watching the presidential race within GOP is genuinely scary from this side of the Atlantic. Even if i share a surname with one of the candidates.

      In ‘defining your god’ It seems to me that all your work has been done for you – assuming your god will be Christian. Isn’t it all there in the scriptures, Don’t you have a testament. Isn’t it all the word of your god? Or are you planning to pick and choose – take the bits you like and ignore the difficult uncomfortable and just plan disgusting bits. If so isn’t that a bit arrogant? Might that not seem a bit presumptuous? Of course you have had direct contact with your god – actually spoken with it, I suppose that would be different. Am I missing something?

      • Will, my God is not Christian solely, but a real force all religions point to. I do pick and choose, as does anyone. My courage in admitting that and in seeking my own answers comes from reading evolutionary psychology—a real macro view of the spiritual and religious impulses—and rereading, as an adult, the Bible.

        I fail to see how anyone can read the New Testament without understanding that Jesus came to attack religious dogma and to restore spirituality to religion. And for that he was killed by established religion! This does not turn me against organized religion, but it does incline me to be very skeptical of such humanly flawed institutions, along with the fact that I vehemently disagree with most established religions’ stances on women and gays.

  • John Wylie says:

    Will Perry is right, that since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. leading up the the “archaic age” 5,000 years ago rulers USURPED the power of God culminating with the building of the pyramids. Then came the “axial age” of the Greek philosophers, Buddhist India, Confucius China, and most of all the Hebrew Profits, who reestablished the covenant between God and the individual without the inter-mediation of kings, politicians or priests.. Since then history is a process of wrestling the power of God away from the politicians, who use it as an instrument for their own domination and glorification. Religion is the instrument of war, not its cause.
    So, I agree with God’s usurpation and His use as an instrument of war in recorded history by politicians but this has not given them “value” in their “desperate” lives but POWER. So the question that remains unanswered: Exactly where does the power of this God come from – we realize that it was usurped, but where did it arise from as a universal force. Superstition doesn’t cut it as an explanation. God is not an epiphenomenon of culture, but a emergent biological property that precedes our own brief species back down through to the roots of our biological hominid Family.

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