Christopher Hitchens: Oblivious Self-Rebuttal

Christopher Hitchens, near the close of his debate with Frank Turek, offered this brief, masterful moment of apparently oblivious self-rebuttal:

Religion works for most people because people in a sense horribly do want it to be true, that they are supervised, that God looks out for them, that they might be rewarded, or they might be punished. It has this terrible servile advantage. That’s why I consider it to be morally superior to be an atheist, to say I would rather live without that ghastly master-slave mentality…. I can only say that I am very relieved to find, having studied the best evidence … very relieved to find there’s no evidence for it at all. If I thought it was true, I would consider myself condemned to live under a tyranny.

(You can find this at at the 1:52:50 point in the debate.) Religion thrives, he says, because people want it. Then he goes on to explain why he wants atheism.

Attempts to explain religion away as some kind of psychological aberration have been with us since Freud and even earlier. Schopenhauer and Feuerbach called it wish fulfillment. The fallacy there has been pointed out repeatedly: wish fulfillment can work both ways, for there are many who do not wish for there to be a God.

This is not a new issue, but rarely has it been caught in such a convenient little package. If Hitchens thinks he can explain religion away by its fulfilling some person’s desires, I can as easily explain his atheism away by how obviously it fulfills his own desire, his wish to be free of accountability before his creator.

Frank Turek’s final comment is most appropriate in light of Hitchens’s desires:

Christopher Hitchens thinks there is no God, and he hates him. God thinks there is a Christopher Hitchens, and he loves him.

(Regarding “no evidence for it at all,” see here, among the comments following my earlier post on this debate),

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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13 Responses

  1. It would be interesting to ask Hitchens if there is a version of God that he would not hate.

    If wish fulfillment works both ways what does that say about God’s ability to reach people? I wouldn’t think we could wish away the very source of the universe.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m not sure I understand your question, Mike.

    The point is not whether we can wish God into being or non-being. The point is that it’s possible for either side to accuse the other of taking its position for reasons of wish fulfillment; to say “the only reason you believe x is because it fulfills some desire, not because it’s true.”

    Whether atheists say that of Christians, or Christians say it of atheists, in both cases it’s illegitimate argumentation (the genetic fallacy).

  3. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the quick response! I hope your day is going well.

    Let me try to rephrase my question: If God exists and is the source of all that is, how could it be easy to wish our belief in him away? I’m not saying wish him out of existence, that would make us more powerful than him, in fact gods ourselves, and I certainly do not believe that.

  4. MedicineMan says:


    I think the answer to your question lies somewhere between the Christian notions of sin and free will. A God who cannot be disbelieved is a God who leaves nothing to faith. There is enough room for doubt that those who would hate God if forced to believe can disbelieve if they so choose. How ‘easy’ that is is sort of up to the person in question. Sin comes in because faith is a form of submission.

  5. MedicineMan, thanks for your answer. Why is it that you are easier to believe in than God? Try as I might, I doubt I could disbelieve your existence.

  6. MedicineMan says:


    Well, it may be that my existence provides no meaningful implications for your life (or whoever’s life we’re considering). You could disbelieve my existence, but you have no reason to want to. There’s no incentive for you to reject me.

    What I mean is that you could always choose to believe that I’m actually Tom using a different name, or a programmed software bot, etc. If you really had a vested interest in denying that I exist, there is room for you to do that. You might even go so far as to think that I’m a figment of your imagination, or some such. “Submitting” to the truth that I am real doesn’t cost you anything, nor does it gain you anything; whether or not I exist has nothing to do with how you ought to think or act, or the nature of the universe.

    In the case of God, acknowledging His existence (or denying it) carries a lot of weight as it pertains to a person’s thoughts, actions, and worldview. A person has many more reasons to want to disbelieve in God than to disbelieve in me. “Submitting” to the fact of God’s existence has implications for your life; whether or not God exists has everything to do with how you ought to think and act, and the nature of the universe.

    Some atheistic thinkers have been more open about this than others. Huxley in particular was very honest that he chose disbelief because it gave him the freedom to do as he pleased. How “easy” something is to disbelieve depends a lot on how much a person stands to “lose”, in their opinion, by believing.

  7. MedicineMan says:


    By the way, notice this idea coming out in Hitchens’ statements above. He’s using words like “relieved”, “would rather live without”, “condemned”, and “tyranny”, all just in reference to what he thinks his life would be like if he believed in God.

    That’s a great example of someone who’s got a lot of internal “incentives” to disbelieve – and you can bet it affects his interpretations of what does and doesn’t count as good evidence of God.

  8. Thanks for your thoughts MedicineMan. You are not the first, nor will you be the last, to suggest that atheists must be hiding from God or choosing to not believe in him because they do not wish to obey. That may be true of some, but it is hardly true of all, and certainly not of me. Then there are those who read the Bible literally and have great difficulty finding this loving God Christians talk about and reject him based on that. Of course, even that is no reason to reject even the possibility of a god existing.

    Do you think it possible that at least some of us are honest in our disbelief?

  9. MedicineMan says:


    I didn’t suggest that atheists as a whole are “hiding” from God. The context of the conversation is the accusation by Hitchens that belief is “wish fulfillment”. The obvious rebuttal is that disbelief can entail an awful lot of “wish fulfillment” itself. In my experience, the person who can say, with complete honesty, “my beliefs are purely the product of brute reason, I have no preferences or desires about them in any way” simply does not exist. What we “wish” to believe influences what we actually do believe, no matter who we are and whether we like it or not.

    As you said, the “hiding” or “blatant rebellion” mentalities can be true of some, and I’ve spoken to many for whom they are. When most of the arguments a particular person uses against belief are emotional (as Hitchens’ are), it’s sensible to note that a desire for God not to be real has at least something to do with their choice of beliefs.

    Of course atheists and theists both come in honest and dishonest stripes. I think part of the problem is where people pick and choose where they’re going to be honest. I have spoken to many unbelievers who reject one particular sect’s interpretations or teachings, but have spent little time or effort finding out if that’s the only possible way to look at it. Yet, they reject the entire idea based on their disagreement with that single group. When such a person claims to be honestly looking for the truth, I have to respectfully disagree.

    Naturally, I can’t speak for your circumstances. Everyone has their own set of reasons to believe what they believe.

  10. MedicineMan, I apologize for putting words in your mouth.

    Well said.

    Have you read this?

  11. MedicineMan says:


    Oh, no apology needed. I just wanted to clarify my point.

    I have read the story you linked, and I think it’s a classic example of an “oupsmitu”. (oops-me-too..ha ha)

    Is this person “certain” that “certainty” is a problem? He says:

    Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.

    “Only” in the “absence” of certainty? He sounds pretty sure of himself. How can we be certain that this is true, if we shouldn’t be “certain” of anything? How would he propose an empirical test of this idea? Shouldn’t I be “certain” about some things before I start gauging different ideas – otherwise, what am I comparing them by?

    I think there’s a valid need to distinguish between the sure and less sure parts of our opinions. However, I don’t think that it’s helpful to assume that anything we can’t empirically test should be treated as suspect. This person is flatly saying that we should be suspect of any politician (or other person) who is confident in his policies. There’s a logical disconnect there, and it becomes an idea that can’t be applied consistently.

    An open mind is supposed to be like an open mouth: ready to close around something beneficial. If it never closes on anything, it’s useless.

  12. All politicians at least act certain of their policies, so we would never vote if we took that advice.

    “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself. As you may know from my book, I’ve taken strong exception to the popular notion that we can rely upon hunches and gut feelings as though they reflect the accuracy of a thought.”

    That paragraph sums up what I took away. When my President tells me he could tell tell Putin was a good man because he looked into his eyes I get a little frightened. I don’t want my President making decisions based on gut feelings.

  13. Mariano says:

    Christopher Hitchens describes his fallacious concept of Judeo-Christian theology as totalitarian, dictatorial and tyrannical. Yet, if God is totalitarian, dictatorial and tyrannical why reject Him and Him alone for being so?

    After all, let us assume that God does not exist and we live in a strictly materialistic universe. Christopher Hitchens is now subject to the totalitarian, dictatorial and tyrannical rule of entropy, hunger and thirst, evolution, death, gravity, genetics and countless other things which demand upon him. Christopher Hitchens appears to be particularly taken with smoking, consuming adult beverages and fornication.

    But why reject God alone for a presumed totalitarian/dictatorial/tyranny?
    Hitchens’ self-description is that he is an “anti-theist.”
    This is man in rebellion.
    This is God in the hands of an angry sinner.
    God stated, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the atheist states, “I shall have not other gods before me.”

    “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
    Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
    —Bob Dillon

    We may add, “…it may be yourself.”


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