The CNN Belief Blog, which has graciously featured a few of my pieces, just celebrated its first anniversary, and for the occasion, its editors reflected on ten things that they’ve learned in the course of the year. The one that got my eye was this: that atheists are by far the most fervent commentators on matters religious. This completely coincides with my own experience as an internet commentator and blogger. Every day, my website and YouTube page are inundated with remarks, usually of a sharply negative or dismissive nature, from atheists, agnostics, and critics of religion. In fact, some of my YouTube commentaries have been specifically targeted by atheist webmasters, who urge their followers to flood my site with “dislikes” and crude assessments of what I’ve said. And one of my contributions to the CNN site—what I took to be a benign article urging Christians to pray for Christopher Hitchens—excited literally thousands of angry responses from the haters of religion.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens. He is a British writer and cultural commentator who lives and works in Washington, D.C. For decades now, he has been observing the political/societal scene and writing about it in a particularly insightful, witty, and acerbic manner. Early in his career, he was something of a Trotskyite, but in the years following September 11th, he emerged as a strong advocate of the Iraq war and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues on the left, a supporter of George W. Bush. He is best known, certainly, for his recent contributions as a critic of religion. His book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything appeared a couple of years ago and proved to be a bestseller. Since the publication of this text, Hitchens has travelled the country debating a series of religious thinkers—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—meeting them with an extremely swift mind and wickedly barbed tongue. Along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, he is one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism, the movement that advocates an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the claims of faith. I think it’s fair to say that Hitchens is playing today the role that another brilliant Englishman, Bertrand Russell, played nearly a century ago, namely, that of religion’s public enemy number one.
Just about a month ago, I was in Spain with my Word on Fire team, filming for our ten-part Catholicism documentary. We visited the wonderful Prado Museum, where we were permitted to photograph some masterpieces by Valazquez, Fra Angelico, and El Greco. Next, we travelled to Avila, the hometown of St. Teresa, where we filmed along the magnificent medieval wall and inside of the splendid 12th century cathedral. The following day, we made our way to Segovia, where we visited the tomb of St. John of the Cross, and then to Toledo, home of the one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Europe. We were allowed to film in front of the the towering golden reredos, swarming with figures depicting Biblical scenes and the lives of the saints. To be in Spain is to swim in a culture that has been shaped dramatically by the Catholic imagination.