Christopher Hitchens was quite a famous atheist until he died, and a form of nostalgia for his activity remains in atheist circles constantly decrying how much they miss the guy. In the first decade of the 2000’s, a slew of atheist books were getting launched and reaching incredible amounts of people and sales, among Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. In a way, you can consider these guys (and many others alongside them) as the “fathers” of the activist-type movement we call ‘New Atheism’. One of them, our dear Hitchens, is often attributed a quote that’s more well known than any others among the ‘New Atheists’ — “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” It’s perfectly accurate and even has it’s own Wikipedia page with the title ‘Hitchens’s Razor’. Unfortunately, though, Hitchens never came up with it. He probably got it from the Latin proverb well-known in the 19th century, quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur (“what is freely asserted, is freely dismissed”). Some atheist website has even found a use of this principle as early as 1704 by theologian Johann Georg Pritius in his work title Introductio in lectionem Novi Testamenti (Introduction to the New Testament) arguing against a non-trinitarian 3rd century theologian.
How can you prove it, Artemon? Because you asserted it without cause, therefore also it may be denied without cause.
Very interesting to see that such a quote may well have originated from the field of theology. So too does the more popular razor, Occam’s Razor, which states that the simplest rational explanation should always be accepted (so we shouldn’t accept tangled explanations if much more concise, self-explanatory ones are at hand). Occam’s Razor comes from William of Ockham, a brilliant theologian and philosopher living in the 13th and 14th centuries. So ideas and principles like this certainly don’t have any foundation in the current air of atheism. Though placed on a pedestal by people who appreciate breathing in the air, these principles are often not acted out in practice. Christopher Hitchens was, of course, a promoter of conspiracy theories like the idea that Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, didn’t really convert to Christianity, despite the fact that, well … Constantine, once he defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, the very next year he produced the Edict of Milan which promulgated freedom of religion, with an emphasis on Christians being able to practice their Christianity without the persecutions of the past, and demanded the return of confiscated Christian property that largely took place during Diocletian’s rule. Constantine took away taxes that clergy members had to pay, raised Christians to the highest levels of government, composed an entire speech spanning hundreds of pages long in book form defending monotheism and Christianity that was collected by Eusebius in his Oration of Constantine and now, for half a century of scholarship, has not been questioned by scholarship in authenticity. After Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, the very next year under his reign Christians banned the practice of gladiatorship and Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the internal disputes of the church. Constantine also built the city of Constantinople over the site of Byzantium (hence why the later empire emerging out of the east of the formative Roman Empire is known as the Byzantine Empire), and this city, though not incorporating a total absence of paganism, was overwhelmingly Christian. Adrian Goldsworthy writes;
Christian claims that there was no trace of pagan cults in the city were exaggerated. There was a large nude statue of Constantine as the sun god on top of what is now known as the Burnt Column, and there were a few temples, mostly on existing foundations. Yet it is fair to say that it was an overtly and overwhelmingly Christian city. (Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. How Rome fell: Death of a superpower. Yale University Press, 2009, 186)
Constantine commissioned the production of over fifty highly expensive Bible’s and constructed churches at an unprecedented rate. In fact, some of the greatest Christian sites in the world to this day have their roots in Constantine’s religious reforms. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is responsible for the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built over where she believed was the burial site of Jesus Christ, and this church remains the most popular Christian pilgrimage site in the world to this day. Constantine also built Old St. Peter’s Basilica in what is today Vatican City, which was demolished in the 16th century and over it built the new St. Peter’s Basilica which is the largest church in the world and one of the greatest representations of Renaissance Architecture. Constantine is also responsible for the great Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Constantine did all this for his personal, Christianity. Just like common Christian practice of his day, he waited until the end of his life to get baptized in the Jordan River (the same place Jesus was baptized), and he made his Christian move despite it being perhaps the best thing he could have done to commit political suicide. At the time, only between 5-10% of the Roman population was Christian, including virtually no one in the aristocracy and no Senators. This is common information amongst modern Roman historians, and the fact that there is even the myth of Constantine converting for political reasons is concerning when it comes to how abrogated the popular understanding of history is in our society. Hitchens, never having read a shred of evidence for this conspiracy theory, asserted it nonetheless. Hitchens’ ignorance of history was something disproportionately atrocious to his other, well, blunders. David Bentley Hart in an excellent review of his book God is Not Great writes;
To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists, as well as (not coincidentally) the most entertaining, but I take this as proof that he is also the least self-deluding. His God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it. His occasional observations on Hume and Kant make it obvious that he has not really read either very closely. He apparently believes that Nietzsche, in announcing the death of God, literally meant to suggest that the supreme being named God had somehow met his demise. The title of one of the chapters in God Is Not Great is “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” but nowhere in that chapter does Hitchens actually say what those claims or their flaws are.
Hart then goes to list off numerous clumsy historical errors Hitchens makes that even a student of historiography could have avoided, including conflating the first and fourth crusades, repeating the historical fantasy myth that Christians burned the Greek works of Aristotle or Lucretius or ever really engaged in some form of widespread pagan book-burning (in fact, it was Christian arguments by those like Augustine and Origen that lead to their preservation of today). Hart just continues listing them …
He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).
Not a problem at all. Someone will definitely inform me that it’s not productive to castigate the work of a dead man like Hitchens, although that argument might hold more credibly if Hitchens didn’t continue exerting such influence and, well, he was the master of such an art himself, spending half his career attacking the post-mortem Mother Teresa. It all eventually ended in perhaps one of the most unfortunate ways. Hitchens, after a long-life of drinking and smoking, he was hospitalized after contracting esophageal cancer and then contracted hospital-acquired pneumonia, dying in 2011.
Hitchens, in one way, is an embodiment of modern new atheism (but perhaps not quite the archetype of Richard Dawkins). A few years before meeting his demise, he was totally demolished in debate on the topic of religion by William Lane Craig in perhaps Craig’s most famous performance — a debating opportunity he almost didn’t take up because he thought Hitchens was so ignorant of the issues, but did so anyways because of his popularity. Especially good is this video where William Lane Craig demolishes Hitchens’ attempts to use evolution to thwart Christianity, something Hitchens didn’t respond to in the rest of the debate since … he couldn’t (in fact, Hitchens even ended up conceding his concluding speech at the end).
I can go on but I think I’ll have to conclude here. In the end of the day, Hitchens’s anti-theistic career is shredded by Hitchens’s Razor.