Christopher Hitchens and the Revolt against Santa Claus

Posted on 11/12/12 21 Comments

A few days ago the ever provocative Atheist Missionary made the following observation:

“I think Hitchens was right: Christianity posits ‘a celestial North Korea’.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I like TAM. Among other things, he has long been a great support for my books and blog and I appreciate it. But that doesn’t mean he can get a free pass to say dumb things. And this is pretty dumb. In fact, I find comments like this to be indicative of the general denigration of civil discourse in the open society as they forgo careful, measured attempts to understand the other in favor of inflammatory equivalencies.

Of course it does no good to respond in kind. The better approach is to take a deep breath and then carefully deconstruct the rhetoric. So let’s take that higher road. And to do that we should start by getting Hitchens’ claim in view. While he made the equation between theism and a totalitarian state on many occasions, I’ve included a representative example here:


So Hitchens says here that belief in God is a “totalitarian” belief, a “wish to be a slave”. It is “the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengable, tyrannical authority”, one that subjects you to “total surveillance”. It is a “celestial North Korea.”

But let’s think carefully about the actual claims of Christianity for a moment. It posits not a “tyrannical authority” but rather an omnipotent divine mind of supreme love and benevolence that created and sustains all things. The problem seems to come in with the fact that God, as morally perfect, will see ultimately that his own perfect justice is satisfied as those who commit wicked acts are punished. This is clearly distressing to Hitchens.

But if the claim is that God is omnibenevolent and perfectly just, why should that bother anybody? I am reminded of another character, admittedly not perfect and certainly not divine, but one who still knows if you’ve been naughty or nice and who sees the scales of reward and punishment met accordingly. And that means that Hitchens sounds rather like a petulant child calling out to all the bad apples in the world to raise a revolt against … Santa Claus!

“Belief in Santa Claus is a totalitarian belief! It is the wish to be a slave! It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengable, tyrannical authority that subjects you to total surveillance. He knows if you’ve been naughty or nice my fellow children, and goodness knows we’ve been naughty! Rise up children, cast the elf off the shelf, throw the lump of coal back, refuse to live in a Christmasy North Korea!”

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  • epicurus

    As an ex Christian, I often prefer to read people such as Bart Ehrman rather than a Dawkins or Hitchens. I find people who have been Christians at one time have a better handle on some of the issues and problems with Christianity. Or perhaps I should say Ehrman deals with issues that are important to me. Hitchens’ tendency to sometimes outrageous statements and reasoning don’t interest me that much.

  • christthetao

    Hitchens seemed to see himself as a protegee of George Orwell. It is striking that in 1984, Orwell, though an atheist, recognized that faith in God was the one thing that could undermine the totalitarian regime:

    “Do you believe in God, Winston?”
    “No.”
    “Then what will defeat us?”
    And indeed, Christianity (I would argue non-Islamic theism generally, and extent the argument to traditional China) has been the sharpest thorn in the side of totalitarian regimes generally. At this very moment, North Korean gestapo who round up escapees in China ask those fleeing, “Have you met any Christians?” If escapees are foolish enough to admit that Christians gave them food and shelter and helped them on their way, as is often the case, then they go to political prisons.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Interesting comments.

  • Ray Ingles

    Um… did my comment really disappear?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      This is the first Ray Ingles comment I’ve seen today. If another one was lost, my apologies. Hopefully you can repost it.

      • Ray Ingles

        Wasn’t to long. In sum, I asked if you’d be happy if you found out someone was really watching your children like Santa. All day, every day – including when they were in the bathroom.

        True, Santa allegedly has their best interests at heart. But in North Korea, it’s similarly alleged that the Divine Leader has the citizen’s best interest at heart.

        As Zeno’s pointed out, the sharper interpretation of this quote questions the “best interest at heart” part. I don’t see it as ‘poisoning the well’.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I wouldn’t be disturbed if Santa Claus turns out to be real. On the contrary, I’d think that is pretty cool. Obviously if you’re just going to propose that some unidentified person has my child under surveillance then I wouldn’t like that, but that is something quite different.

          • Ray Ingles

            OK. Imagine Santa Clause is real.

            Now imagine how many cases of child abuse he sees and doesn’t report…

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Interestingly, I fundamentally shook my daughter’s faith in Santa Claus a few years ago by asking why African children don’t seem to receive gifts.

            • Kerk

              He tries his best to report. But there is evil Mister Frost who is in charge of all abuses, and he blocks some of his calls and hijacks his messages.

              • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                Brrrr.

    • epicurus

      I saw Ray’s first comment, a couple minutes later it was gone.

  • Zeno

    Since Hitchens seems to merely be asserting a view and not giving an argument in its favor, accusing him of an intensional fallacy may, strictly speaking, fail to fairly address what he said. However, given his remarks, it wouldn’t surprise me if those remarks are based upon an argument like the following:

    (1) Christians hope that God exists.

    (2) God is numerically identical to a cosmic tyrant.

    (3) Therefore, Christians hope that a cosmic tyrant exists.

    This argument is invalid, as it commits an intensional fallacy. To illustrate the fallacy, suppose that Ted is the tallest man in the room, but that I do not know this. Suppose further that I am wondering whether or not Ted is the tallest man in the room. Now consider the following argument:

    (a) I am wondering whether or not Ted is the tallest man in
    the room.

    (b) Ted is numerically identical to the tallest man in the room.

    (c) So, I am wondering whether or not the tallest man in the
    room is the tallest man in the room.

    Clearly (c) does not follow from (a) and (b), since (a) and (b) can be true while (c) is false. Neither does (3) follow from (1) and (2). So even if both of Hitchens’ premises are true, the conclusion does not follow.

    But I don’t think Hitchens’ views are dumb, at least if modified a bit. Christians have said a lot more about God than simply that he is good. In fact, many of the things they’ve said about God seem to call into question his goodness. Some Christians have said that in response to human wickedness, God flooded the entire world. Some Christians have said and some continue to say that a just punishment for those who have sinned, even in the most venial way, and not repented is to be tormented for all eternity. Some Christians have said that God sometimes commands genocide and that God once desired homosexuals to be stoned to death. Some Christians have said that God thought it a touching piety and test of true loyalty that Abraham was willing to commit child sacrifice. Some Christians have said that God notices every time someone masturbates and that this can even constitute a mortal sin. So, unlike Santa Claus, many of God’s followers have done quite a bit to make him out to be an odious despot whose existence would indeed be lamentable. The worst crime commonly attributed to Santa Claus is the crime of not giving someone a gift. Unlike God, Santa was never accused of ordering the hands of women who defend their husbands from attack to be chopped off. So if, after conceiving of God in this atrocious fashion, a person still desires that such a being exist, it constitutes no breach of reason to suspect that such a person betrays the psychology of an abused child, the psychology of a person who, for the sake of some security God offers them, is willing to live with the copious amounts of wickedness they think characterize God. This is not to indict all Christians, of course. Not all Christians insist on believing the things enumerated above. But many do. And for those that do, I think Nietzsche’s remarks (which perhaps Hitchens is inadequately trying to communicate) are apt:

    “The thing that sets us apart is not that we are unable to find God, either in history, or in nature, or behind nature—but that we regard what has been honored as God, not as “divine,” but as pitiable, as absurd, as injurious; not as a mere error, but as a crime against life…. We deny that God is God…. If any one were to show us this Christian God, we’d be still less inclined to believe in him.—In a formula: deus, qualem Paulus creavit, dei negation.”

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I appreciate your analysis Zeno, and I recognize that there is much more that could be said on matters like the problem of evil.

      However, some analogies are so incendiary that they simply poison the well of careful, measured discourse. Consider:

      “Jimmy, turn the music down now!”
      “You’re like Hitler dad!”

      Jimmy’s dad may not be perfect. He may in fact be unreasonable. But equating him to Hitler is an indefensible comparison if taken seriously. Comparing God to the recently deceased Kim Jong Il is an equivalent, and presumably Hitchens wanted us to take him seriously.

      • Zeno

        If the point of comparison is point out similarities, then I don’t see what is so ridiculous about believing that God as depicted by many Christians and despotic tyrants have a lot of similarities. I should be clear that I myself do not believe that God and despotic tyrants have a lot of similarities. But that is because I think that God, if God exists, is nothing like what many Christians have said. But if God did have the traits and history I outlined above, then what would be absurd about likening such a being to a despotic tyrant?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          God is like a despotic tyrant in some ways. For example, he exercises control over a population and nobody elected him into his current position. The question is whether making such comparisons adds more or less illumination to conceptual analysis. And when you get beyond the superficial comparisons and actually draw a comparison between, say, Kim Jong Il and God, you’ll find that the pot-bellied Korean shares more with Hitchens (e.g. a fallen moral character, the unhealthy consumption of large amounts of spirits, an inaccurate and overly favorable self-perception, etc.) than with God.

          • Zeno

            I agree with that completely. But that is not exactly what I was asking. I was not asking why it is stupid to compare the true God with a despotic tyrant. I agree that is ridiculous. What I am asking is what is ridiculous about comparing God *as depicted by many Christians* (e.g. some being with the features outlined above) with a despotic tyrant. If Hitchens’ target is just God as conceived of by perfect being theology, then I agree his comparison is ridiculous. But if his target is God as depicted by folks like John Piper (a God who, in response to human sin and for the sake of his own pleasure and glory, freely abandons most of humanity to the worst possible future and has the bad taste to call this good news to the world), then I still fail to see where the absurdity lies. Both despotic tyrants and Piper-like deities at least initially seem to be authoritarian, cruel, self-absorbed martinets who are more than willing to take human life as punishment for breaking even seemingly ridiculous rules.

            I don’t intend any disrespect, but it seems to me that what is more puzzling than Hitchens’ comparison is a Church that on the one hand gives rise to traditions some of which depict God in terrible ways and then on the other hand becomes frustrated that God is likened to a nefarious tyrant. I’m not saying that you, Randal, depict God in terrible ways. But many do, among them the divine genocide apologists of whom you’ve been critical.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              I’ll respond to this in a blog post. It may be a few days because I’m flying to Milwaukee tomorrow but I will get to it.

    • TheAntiHitchens

      Hitchens of course had a totalitarian mindset himself, and, by his own admission, missed the glories of Trotskyism.

      Had he had true political power, he would have wiped Christians from the face of the earth.

      After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

  • http://twitter.com/AtheistMission TheAtheistMissionary

    He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He’s know’s when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good so you better be good for goodness sake“.
    We all revolt against Santa Claus … at the age of about 6-8.

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    Hitchens has always been overrated. Once you get past his smug british accent, you realize he really doesn’t have much to say.