I recently watched an online video of atheist Christopher Hitchens. He was apparently speaking at a Freedom Fest in 2008. Hitchens was quite influential, and to read the comments to the video, he was much beloved and missed by atheists. He had a good platform and audience by late in life, and made quite a splash with his books, speaking engagements, and debates.
I have found Hitchens interesting. The reason I find him interesting is that the first time I watched him I was hit hard in the gut by the force of his statements. A few moments of reflection made me realize that he was not saying very much, at least nothing academically respectable to anyone trained in apologetics or philosophy. Reading his book confirmed to me that his arguments were indeed quite shallow (See here for one example). The writings do not rise to the level of a very good journal article, but read closer to the level of a of a popular magazine.
So why does Hitchens remain so influential? I think it is his stage presentation. He spoke with a force and vigor bordering on anger. My first reaction was that this was a formidable opponent, but a little while of cold-blooded reflection reveals that his arguments simply do not hold up.
For example, in the video I watched recently, Hitchens criticizes New Testament as a Jesus myth, one that is haphazardly put together. Jesus’ story is so fake, Hitchens claims, that we have no evidence that Jesus ever existed, the virgin birth does not prove Jesus’ messages, and the writers had to force-fit the birth of Jesus being in Bethlehem by inventing a census that would take Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. According to Hitchens, the whole thing reeks of legend, haphazardly slapped together and obviously fake to any thinking person. Of course, he says all this in the midst of a long string of other criticisms, such as the virgin birth being a copy of many pagan virgin birth myths. The story of Jesus is supposed to be an outright and obvious fake full of historical inaccuracies.
At first Hitchens statements seem quite persuasive, but after some thinking, they reveal themselves as having enough error to keep us going for a while. Hitchens eventually cedes the point that if the whole thing was made up from the start, why not have Him just start out in Bethlehem? This where we first notice the flies in Hitchens ointment. He is saying that the story is an obvious fake, but the central story is based in fact about a real person. Which is it, Chris? Hitchens would have us believe that the authors of the New Testament took a real person that everyone of that day knew where He was born, then wrote a story about Him that convinced large numbers of people to defy Rome, but was sloppily put together, riddled with historical and geographical error, and included teachings that are immoral on the face of them. Plus, believing in this story would get one ostracized from Jewish society and killed by the Roman government. Chris has obviously glaringly missed something here.
As to Hitchens claims about Jesus being a copy of several ancient virgin birth myths, this is just false on the face of it, and Hitchens may have plagiarized this part of his writings and public speaking (Again, see here for detail on this).
Hitchens goes on to claim that even the virgin birth and the resurrection, if they are true, would not prove the value of the proposition that we should “take no thought for the morrow” which was one of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 6:34. Hitchens holds this to mean that we should not save money and should abandon our families. As the only qualifications Hitchens seems to bring to the table are that of a journalist, surely he knew what he was doing here. One sentence taken by itself does not make an accurate presentation of someone’s views. In the same paragraph of the speech, Jesus is telling His listeners to not worry or be anxious, for God knows what we need. The sentence just prior to the one Hitchens quoted tells us that if we seek first God’s righteousness, our physical needs will be taken care of. Further, in other passages, Jesus tells us to care for our families in Mark 7:9-13 and makes provision for His own mother after His death in John 19:27. Add to this the many passages throughout the Old and New Testament that tell us to help the poor and the widows, to work and not be a burden on anyone, and on and on about being good citizens.
Hitchens is also wrong about the historicity of the Bible. The New Testament alone has a large amount of historical fact that cannot be dismissed by a wave of the skeptics hand. For but a few examples, see here, and here, and here. The criticism about the census in Luke is tired and old and has been soundly refuted for years. See here. The Old Testament is also historically accurate, as shown here.
No journalist would get very far by making such a misstep in any other field, but Hitchens made a good living by doing it to the Bible. He either knew what he was doing and did not care, or more probably, was so emotional about religion that he self-blinded himself to obvious and glaring flaws in his arguments.
But think about one statement Hitchens made. He claimed that even if someone rose from the dead, it would not prove their statements were true about life’s anxieties and worries. This is interesting and revealing. Hitchens is saying that even if someone were to actually, truly rise from the dead, he still would not submit and trust Jesus. It reminds me of the passage in Luke 16:19-31 where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the story, a wicked man is in torment in the afterlife, and wants to go back and tell his family to change their ways. In v.31, Jesus teaches that if someone does not believe the Bible, they would not believe even if someone were to come back from the dead. Christopher Hitchens proves this point, for even though Jesus did rise from the dead, he did not believe, just as many Jewish leaders of the day did not believe even when Jesus rose before them.
Back to our question: Why was Hitchens so popular? I believe it was because of his tone and presentation style. He spoke quickly and threw out a lot of criticisms in a short time. Even though most of them are patently untrue, it sounds impressive and makes it difficult for debate opponents to respond to all of them. I also believe his popularity was because of the force and bluster in which he spoke. He spoke with emotion bordering on anger, sprinkling in some ad hominem insults. Such a style sounds impressive. The irony is that upon close inspection using a reasonable evaluation, we find the arguments fail.
Christopher Hitchens’ style lends itself to what TV personality Bill Maher was quoted as saying after his death, saying he was “one of the great talk show guests of all time.” Things that make an outstanding talk show guest will influence many, but nevertheless be hollow upon close inspection.