There's no evidence to suggest that Christopher Hitchens, who died this month of esophageal cancer, took his final breath as anything but an ardent, confident atheist. Any suggestion to the contrary would have enraged him, much like the prayers spoken on his behalf by the targets of his criticism. Faith, as the prominent author said with a trademark sneer, is “the surrender of the mind,” with “sinister” implications. His was the clever voice of secular superiority, though his argument against religion ultimately amounted to slugging it out with an opponent whose mind he was never going to change, and who had no chance of changing his.
Mr. Hitchens and his cohort of fellow new atheists have sold a lot of books, to be sure – Mr. Hitchens, no matter where you stand on the issue, is a very good read. But if anything, the rhetoric that cast an entire group, which itself contains its share of intellectuals, as “stupid” only fired up the extremists on the other side. The moderates – the group into which the majority of faith-exploring people fall – dodged the flying stones by standing on the sidelines (perhaps while reading their own copies of Mr. Hitchens's bestselling book God is Not Great).
Mr. Hitchens was doing his best to hasten what intellectuals in the West have predicted since the dawn of the Age of Reason – that the Enlightenment would extinguish faith once and for all. This hasn't happened: God, while certainly less “Great” in the West, nonetheless continues to hold sway, and in some instances increasingly so, over many other parts of the world. Even in countries like Canada, dumping organized religion is not the same as giving up on God (or, at least, inquiring about God's existence), as national surveys on beliefs and values have shown. So while Mr. Hitchens had his answer, the majority of humanity still isn't convinced.
Now, sociologists speak of a “post-secular age” in which religion finds a permanent place in a largely non-religious society. Faith is morphing and softening, drifting out of formal worship places and breaking down once-strict denominational and doctrinal walls, creating a modern syncretism that might just be capable of adapting the best parts into a new whole. After all, our reliance on pure reason and its secular institutions – government, the marketplace, even science itself – has failed, or, at minimum, disappointed, roughly 99 per cent of us. Religion, particularly as it speaks to social justice and equality, might have a contribution to make in a world confused about its core values.
So, pace Mr. Hitchens, isn't it time for a more sensible conversation about faith? Something, for instance, that goes beyond whether Muslim women should be forced to remove their veils when becoming Canadian citizens, as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced they must, seemingly out of the blue, two weeks ago. A deeper conversation might explore, more productively, not just the compromises faith should and can make as it becomes woven into Canadian society, but the contributions it might offer, as well.
If David Cameron, a self-described “vaguely practising” Anglican, wants to pronounce Britain a Christian state – as he did last week on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – does he not have an obligation to foster a discussion of what that should actually involve?
What role religion should play in the public sphere is hardly a new question. But this year, how to create a moral and equal society became a mainstream concern: At the Occupy protests, embedded clergy pitched tents and got arrested; Governor-General David Johnston gave speeches calling for a kinder, gentler Canada rooted in the Christian values of his forbears; Islamist activists helped to topple tyrants in the Middle East and will probably play a major, if polarizing, role in reshaping their societies.
In the search for a new “civic faith” – as Stephen Duncombe, a communications professor at New York University and an activist, described it in an interview this week – God is still sitting at the table.