Admirable Atheists

A number of Christian bloggers have felt obligated to comment on Christopher Hitchens’ recent death. Doug Wilson, who wrote the obituary for Christianity Today (and subsequently prompted Baylyan angst — how could a transformer write for a squishy evangelical publication?), set the tone for most Christian reflections:

Christopher knew that faithful Christians believe that it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the Judgment. He knew that we believe what Jesus taught about the reality of damnation. He also knew that we believe—for I told him—that in this life, the door of repentance is always open. A wise Puritan once noted what we learn from the last-minute conversion of the thief on the cross—one, that no one might despair, but only one, that no one might presume. We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever. But we do have every indication that Christ died for sinners, men and women just like Christopher. We know that the Lord has more than once hired workers for his vineyard when the sun was almost down (Matt. 20:6).

In other words, the tendency for Christians has been to look at Hitchens through the lens of redemption — he did not confess Christ as Lord; he actually vigorously denied Christ; so Hitchens’ meaning is bound up with eternity.

This is all true. But Christians eager to defend the gospel often miss the creational side of Hitchens’ meaning. My one personal encounter with him came the year he gave the annual Mencken Lecture in Baltimore. It was one of the shortest forty minutes of my life (almost as quick and as witty as a talk my wife and I heard from Calvin Trillin almost thirty years ago in Boston). Hitchens seemed to be introducing the substance of his remarks the entire time and yet it turned out that his rapid-fire, riveting, and provocative introduction was the substance, and it left us wanting more. Hitchens then consented to sign books despite his obvious need for a cigarette (and probably a drink). His was a wonderful performance and would likely have received a hearty wink from Mencken himself.

The Mencken association is poignant for this blogger since this semester I offered a seminar on the Baltimore bad boy who was also a naysayer of God — often wittily, provocatively, and even thoughtfully. One of the aspects of Mencken that I came to admire — which applies to Hitchens as well — was the sheer ferocity and volume of his output. Although both men had “no reason” to work, or saw no ultimate meaning in their labors, that did not prevent them from continuing to sit at the key board and pound out essay after essay, book after book.

Another figure who fits here from my semester of teaching is Woody Allen, another skeptic well on record about his disbelief. Despite worries about the universe expanding and anguish over the miseries of life (humanity is divided into the horrible and the miserable), Allen has continued to write, direct, and star in movies at a pace unrivaled in the history of cinema.

We often hear of the Protestant work ethic but do we ever notice that prominent atheists have remarkable energies and discipline as well? Mencken may be the most remarkable because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 that prevented him from writing for the last eight years of his life. How he went on is unimaginable, especially since he contemplated suicide, at least as a topic, in one of his 1920s essays.

The universal wisdom of the world long ago concluded that life is mainly a curse. Turn to the proverbial philosophy of any race, and you will find it full of a sense of the futility of the mundane struggle. Anticipation is better than realization. Disappointment is the lot of man. . . .

Yet we cling to it in a muddled physiological sort of way — or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way — and even try to fill it with gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowsmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acides. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in a state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worled so hard for thirty years, deperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleastant to me, and I avoid it as mush as possible. Then is it yearing to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convineced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste. . . .

I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .

Whether or not Hitchens or Allen would share these notions, they do bear remarkable similarities to Mencken. And their work ethic is something that Christians should appreciate because — even though Hitchens, Mencken, and Allen would deny this — of their creatureliness. All people have been created to work. Some people excel at work more than others. Hitchens certainly did that (as did Mencken and as does Allen). Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers. After all, if Christians are only known for giving thanks for redemption, onlookers might reasonably conclude that believers are ingrates when it comes to all the other blessings of this mortal existence.


29 thoughts on “Admirable Atheists

  1. Darryl, excellent post. I’ve been reading a number of remembrances on “Hitch.” There is much to admire about the man, even as he would, at times, aggravate me (and probably everyone) to no end. Interestingly, even the committed atheist Hitchens could not escape the image of his creatureliness imprinted by God on his soul… rather, it seems, he embraced it.



  2. I think you bring out a lot of good things things here. What you seem to neglect, however, is the self-centered nature of their work ethic. Which is especially clear in the last line you quoted by Mencken.


  3. Jim, Ecclesiastes 4:4 says all toil and skill in work springs from man’s envy of his neighbor. It may simply be that atheists, who believe there is no life to come, are more aware of how their envy motivates them. For instance, couldn’t we say that Hitchens spent his life aspiring to attain a role comparable to an Orwell or Solzhenitsyn? I’d say he never came close to either author but that seems, from what I’ve read of him, to be an aspiration of his.


  4. All I am thinking, Hatchet, is that there are (at least) two lessons to be learned here by Christians. One, work is good and so is hard, disciplined work. We therefore praise God for his common grace in people like Hitchens (as Hart rightly highlights). But, two, the good, hard work we do now should not be done unto our own pleasure, primarily. I know Christian men who are quite literally addicted to their work (because it is, in Mencken’s words, “more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine”). But, rather, we ought perform our work well to the glory and enjoyment of God. I think that has something to do with being a redeemed child of God.


  5. “I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .”

    How is that self-centered? I wish I felt more this way about my work. And I don’t see how this sentiment is at all at odds with working to the glory of God.


  6. Marx was another atheist who thought that the meaning of life was found in work. Hey, puritans, it’s the secular holidays and It really is ok to not work when you get the opportunity.

    About the only chapter (11) I really like in Stillman’s Dual Citizens was against the confusion of “vocation” with work. I do wish that Stillman could have found somebody other than the Romanist (Calvinist-hating) Chesterton to make his case. But Stillman does quote a book I like: How to be Idle by the British writer, Tom Hodgkinson.

    I have noticed that the people who most like to talk about “vocation” are folks who have not done much worthwhile work in their life. But that doesn’t matter. You see, they have a “whole-life worldview”.

    I take my sides with Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry against those who aspire to be the next Os Guinness. We don’t need anymore snobs in short pants telling us what our sweat means. In my opinion, that kind of work is just not nearly worthwhile as that done by person who collects my trash on Monday Mornings.

    But is it a “calling”? Some of us work simply to pay the bills. Relax already.


  7. Let’s not forget that Christopher has a living brother, Peter. I think he’s brilliant too. He’s possibly a believer (in a traditionalist CoE way) and is a real conservative — one of the last, I think.


  8. Hitchens remained an American until the end. He thought that the “real him” was an individual who was in control and had a choice. “Even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it’s hello darkness my old friend. In which case, why not cancer of the brain? As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be “me.” (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumors or fabrications.)


  9. One person knows his work ethic was self-centered, another ascribes it to envy of his neighbor. Really, guys? What is the motive to judge motive? There is a kind of secularized version of “calling” in which a person is good at something, knows he is good at it, enjoys being good at it, and pours himself into it. If it could be that, why impute something else?


  10. @MM – Hear! Hear! (and well put, to boot).

    That said, I find work a real curse (not good at much of anything I like, and know it, and don’t enjoy knowing it, and so pour myself into contemplating rest from it, and into resting from it as often as possible, to a fault.

    And, that being said, @David R. – You posed the question:

    “I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .”

    How is that self-centered?”

    Three words: “agreeable…to me…” That’s how.


  11. Bill, and how would a Christian phrase this? “My work is agreeable to God, more than I can imagine”? Or, “My work is agreeable to God, more than God can imagine?” Makes Mencken sound modest.


  12. Jim, your lessons are fine as far as they go, but I wonder what you mean when you say that you know Christian men who are quite literally addicted to their work. Do these men have other manifestations of their pathology (which usually confirms real addiction), or maybe some who you’d call “quite literally addicted” are actually guys who legitimately love their work? While I certainly think there are real addicts, my own sense is that pathology is over-ascribed anymore: people who love a good thing in ways others wish they could tend to get wrongly pegged as x-oholics. Sometimes I think people talk about work the way Nazarenes talk about beer, which is to say just as there is little distinction made between hard drinkers and alcoholics there is little distinction made between hard workers and workaholics. Perhaps it’s all a function of a moralistic-therapeutic age.


  13. Zrim…
    “which is to say just as there is little distinction made between hard drinkers and alcoholics there is little distinction made between hard workers and workaholics. Perhaps it’s all a function of a moralistic-therapeutic age.”

    I am liking your distinctions. Is anyone listening?



  14. Bill,

    Maybe I’m missing something. Why does “agreeable…to me…” have to necessarily be self-centered? Surely you can’t think it’s sinful for someone to love one’s work? And how is that any more self-centered than “I find work a real curse (not good at much of anything I like, and know it, and don’t enjoy knowing it, and so pour myself into contemplating rest from it, and into resting from it as often as possible, to a fault”?


  15. Quoting Ecclesiastes 4:4 isn’t really judging Hitchens’ motives. It’s not even judging his motives to claim that he admired Orwell and Solzhenitsyn as writers or that he didn’t measure up to their precedent. I’ve read Hitchens for the last twenty years and know he admired O and S. I also believe that compared to O and S he fell short of the precedent of their work. Hitchens motives for work, as such, don’t seem to me to have been any worse than any one else’s.


  16. Does work have to be agreeable to me to be glorifying to God? In other words, there seems to be something to be said for doing work which is not agreeable to me if it brings glory and honor to God.


  17. Jim, but since man was created to work, then someone who enjoys work (Proverbs says a lot about sloth) may be doing what God created them to do. To fault Hitchens or Mencken for not glorifying God in their work seems a little cold since no unbeliever can glorify God (at least as redeemer). Whether they glorify God as creator is another question. Somehow my cats glorify God (I’m supposing as creator). I see no reason to exclude human beings from such creaturely activities.


  18. Someone who enjoys his work may in fact not be glorifying God. And someone who does not enjoy his work may be glorifying God anyway because he is doing what he was created to do. And the fact that the unbeliever cannot glorify God in no way mitigates his responsibility to do so. Otherwise he’d get off the hook simply by virtue of being an unbeliever. When unbelievers act like unbelievers I am not surprised. But, then again, I also don’t hold them up as a model for believers – no matter how much common grace they may have. That said, your point IS well taken that believers would do well to admire the common grace qualities in unbelievers such as Hitchens.


  19. @David R. – I never said it’s “necessarily” self-centered, but if you don’t believe in God, how can a statement like that be less than self-centered? It may be more than that. I simply asserted that it is explicitly self-centered in that the agreeableness expressed is in reference to “me” (i.e. H.L.M). When you have no one to answer to beside yourself & your own internal morality, it is, I suppose, “necessarily” self-centered. So I concede you that point.

    Maybe I am the one that missed something. I may have missed where I condemned loving one’s work as sinful. I’ll leave it to you to ponder how what I’ve said is any less self-centered. But I’ll give you a hint. I believe in God, and I mentioned “fault.” And in saying that, I’m not referring only to my own standards. So, I think it’s at least arguable that it is in fact, less self-centered.

    @DGH – (and David R., et al) – Let me be clear. I am not faulting Hitchens or H.L.M. for not glorifying God (as Redeemer, Creator, whatever; I’ll leave that up to God). For what it’s worth, I’m glad both men seemed to have enjoyed their respective vocations (yes, vocations). I have enjoyed what little I’ve read of H.L.M, and most of what I’ve read of Hitchens over the years, as well as others in their same vein, e.g. men like Orwell, and Twain, etc. Somehow, all of these men, and Plato and Aristotle, too, like DGH’s cat, glorify God, even if unwillingly or unwittingly, as creatures of the God they did not apparently know. Jim is still, I think, correct, though, cold as it may seem. Either that or is there unrighteousness with God if He holds them accountable for not glorifying him as God?

    As far as how a Christian would phrase it, I would assume, if she or he were familiar with the scriptures, they could do worse than something along the lines of, Luke 17:10. That’s not to fault anyone for saying it any other way, believer or no. It’s just what I have to say about it.


  20. Jack, I can’t tell. But I do still get the feeling some here who observe men legitimately loving their work can mistake them for being pathological. They certainly could be, but from my own experience it’s also just as likely that men who are actually admirable for their work ethic get unduly classed.


  21. Jim and Bill, but the point is that Christians are the ones, supposedly, who can appreciate non-believers’ accomplishments since we are the ones who believe in a creator and can see the creaturely side of these creatures. In which case, it could be that believers who refuse to admire the work and creativity and genius of these atheists are failing to glorify the God whom they willingly seek to glorify. In other words, what God does with Hitches is one thing. What we do is another.


  22. Darryl, I agree with your last post here. No problems there. Its what I’ve been saying all along. But I simply want to underscore the fact that Mencken’s work ethic was not all admirable. In other words, I think qualification and nuance is in order here. Can we be challenged by their hard work? Sure. Though in my experience, most men need to have the reigns pulled back on them with regard to work, not kicked in the pants to get out there and labor. I become a little unsettled when the first thing men do after the worship service is pull out their iPhones to check-in at work (or the score of the game, though more often than not its work related). I don’t think its a pathology. But it is a spiritual struggle in terms of keeping the Sabbath and caring for your family. Some men work so many hours a week their families at home are neglected and falling apart. Part of the reason why is because, like Mencken, nothing is so agreeable to them than their work. I’m glad their work is agreeable to them. But something should be more agreeable to them than their work: namely, their God, their family, and their church. And yes, that should have been the case for Mencken. His being an atheist doesn’t get him off the hook here. So, I would think.


  23. Darryl, I only just now read this post and was very much intrigued by the thoughts expressed. I completely agree with your thesis that we should be thankful for the productive work of non-believers as well as believers, though, perhaps for different reasons. The reason I would give is not concerned with whether the work of non-believers only contributes to God’s gift of creation (what you refer to as “blessings of this mortal existence”) but rather that he contributed to God’s glory by improving upon God’s good creation (to the extent he did), regardless of his intent. It is because creation glorifies the triune God, both in the beginning and as new creation that we should be thankful.


  24. Don, and here is where we likely disagree or you haven’t really come clean — do you think Hitchens’ glorifying of God is enough to merit eternal life? If so, sorry, you’re a liberal. If not, then you haven’t been honest about the real differences between creation and redemption.


  25. Darryl,

    I’ll slide down the second horn of your dilemna with a denial wrt my honesty. I have frequently stated that there are real differences between creation and redemption, just not their essence. I maintain that creation and creaturliness are the essence of both creation and new creation (redemption) or Christ would not have taken on both. The real difference between them is that satan, sin and death are put in their place, so that even satan will glorify God forever – though he will not enjoy Him very much.


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