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Our Franklin

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Our Franklin

Washington D.C. Diarist Spring 2012
Arts and Culture

I first met Christopher Hitchens in the spring of 2004. We hit it off well enough for him to remark that he did not expect to reach the age of 65. Would that he had made it that far. Among the reasons we clicked was our shared skepticism about religious faith. From the time of our first meeting until a few weeks before he died, we traded ideas about many things, but the predominant theme was religion: Hobbes on religion, the Mormons, American evangelism, the status of rationalism, and, of course, radical Islam. There was more to Hitchens’s atheism than mere disgust or prejudice, as became clear from the two book reviews we exchanged: his on my book on Benjamin Franklin, in The Atlantic; and mine on his book on Thomas Paine, in City Journal.

Franklin was, in my view, a freethinking critic of Enlightenment freethinking. He thought that the Enlightenment case against religion, especially against the possibility of miracles, was weak. He once wrote a comic piece in which, in the guise of a friend of the clergy, he made a powerful case that Hobbes’s argument against the existence of spirits was circular. Franklin thought it a real problem that lots of smart, honest, and normal people were believers and even reported evidence of divine revelation, such as the spirit of God moving within them. It wouldn’t do to explain these things away, as did Bacon and Hobbes, by attributing them to fear, ignorance of material causes, or some natural imperfection in the wiring of the human brain.

Franklin’s doubt that our basic moral intuitions made sense led him to doubt the existence of God, but he granted the utility of religion and remained a lifelong friend and publisher of the fire-breathing New Light preacher George Whitefield. Asked Franklin: “If men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be without it?” Franklin made his own unbelief, and the grounds for it, difficult to discern.

I was thus surprised to find in Hitchens’s review praise of Franklin’s atheism but nothing else: no mention of the good things Franklin said about religion, of his critique of the Enlightenment, or of his critique of morality. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. The wheel of Hitchens’s thinking and writing—indeed, of his very life—spun on a single axis: the struggle between righteousness and evil. He was, in perhaps the best form I’ve known, a genuinely moral man. His case against religion was that, however conceived, God must be a tyrant and thus an enemy of liberty and justice.

Not long after he got sick, I asked Hitchens if he’d like to have a discussion on atheism and belief: one-on-one, with no audience and no time limits. The question I wanted to pose, after Franklin, was the following: if a materialistic rationalist cannot without circularity disprove the reports of living and sane believers that conscience or the spirit of God has moved within them, then isn’t the rationalist’s scoff mere faith in materialism and the inviolable laws of physical nature? If it is—if the rationalist merely believes—is there no rational approach to refuting the claims of religion? Hitchens expressed relish at the thought of such a discussion, and, at this point, we were both living in Washington, D.C.; but to my regret, the cancer got his voice before we could converse.

Christopher Hitchens had a lot of Franklin’s virtues: stiletto wit and conversation; a brilliant, hilarious, and often saucy pen; prodigious knowledge of the English language and its literature; physical and intellectual courage; love of wine (and women and song); a pure and unresentful egalitarianism. Both were journalists and both wrote memoirs. Both were humanists of the first degree.

Above all, both lived for this life as the only one a man can have: in the valley of the shadow of death. There are two ways to stare into the maw: with hope for a second edition (as Franklin was wont to say) or with gratitude for the life-giving gift of finitude. Franklin and Hitchens both took the second stance—Franklin philosophically, more concerned to understand the human condition than to be in the right; Hitchens morally, by means of his granitic integrity. Which is better is not for me to say; each will do well as the measure of a man.

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