Why be Catholic? Answering Christopher Hitchens

The atheist Christopher Hitchens used to debate religious believers publicly. One question he was famous for asking in debate was, “What good can a believer do than an unbeliever cannot do?” His assumption was that an atheist could do any good deed a Christian believer can do. Faith, it seems, adds nothing to the picture.


When Hitchens asked, “What good can you do?” he obviously had material benefits in mind: building hospitals and schools, direct poor relief, advocating for human rights, and so forth. In Hitchens’s mind, this is the kind of thing anyone can do. You don’t have to be a religious believer to hand out food or build a hospital.


One way of answering Hitchens is to point out that religious believers simply do more of this kind of thing than unbelievers. Church goers are more likely to volunteer their time and donate their financial resources to charitable works. Furthermore, it was the Catholic Church that created the modern institutions of benevolence. Modern healthcare, education, social work, and the human rights regimes are heirs to the Catholic tradition. Even the U.N. declaration on human rights was authored by a Catholic (Jacques Maritain).   


But this way of responding does not address the principle of Hitchens’s question. Atheism, in principle, does not stop you from distributing charity or working for human rights. I suppose there might be plenty of ethical atheists. There are certainly plenty of immoral Catholics.


There is a deeper answer to Hitchens’s question. It is that only a believer can convey transcendent hope. An atheist can offer hope for material benefits, for the prospect of food, shelter, and education, for political representation or emancipation. But what can the atheist offer an old man filled with regret, except the prospect of oblivion? How can the atheist assuage grief or the pain of unrecoverable loss? Only through distraction and the hope of fading memory.  Faith offers a solace the skeptic is always denied: the possibility than any loss may be redeemed, that even mysterious suffering might be meaningful.


St. Josephine Bakhita is my favorite example of this kind of hope. She lived a life of horrific abuse. She was captured and sold into slavery at a young age. She could not ever remember her birth name. Her cruel masters gave her the name “Bakhita” as an ironic joke. It means “lucky,” which she certainly was not. Yet she came to Catholic faith and offered this verdict on her life. “I am definitively loved,” she said, and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”


Bakhita did more than look forward to a future redemption. Christian hope worked backward on her life, and gave her a perspective to reinterpret her past experiences. “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me,” she wrote, “I would kneel and kiss their hands. For if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”


This kind of hope is supernatural, to be sure. It is heroic. (That is why Bakhita is a saint.) Few of us can give that kind of testimony, even if we are believers. But neither have we been called to live Bakhita’s life. Each day has enough trouble of its own, Jesus says. We all have troubles, big or small. Saints like Bakhita prove that these troubles can be born fruitfully if we unite them to Christ in Christian hope.


Hitchens understands this response, of course, but he rejects it. He thinks that faith is a fool’s hope, because it cannot be known to be true in a way that would satisfy scientific curiosity. Whether Hitchens’s skepticism itself is rational is a topic for another article. Here I simply point out that Hitchens must bite the bullet. His position must collapse ultimately to despair. When the genius Beethoven lost his hearing, he contemplated suicide and wrote, “O, how beautiful life is, but in my case, it is poisoned.”


Contrast that with the believing John Milton. When the brilliant poet lost his sight, it obviously marred the use of his prodigious talent. However, he offered the loss in service to God. He wrote of the sacrifice in his famous and beautiful sonnet 19, On His Blindness.


When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

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