Yes. That’s the answer given by Damon Linker in a fascinating essay at TNR.com. To play a bit of catch up first: last week, writings by (and more important, images of) Christopher Hitchens ripped through the Internet relating to his recent diagnosis of cancer. The discovery earlier this summer forced the author to abruptly cancel the book tour of his new memoir in order to undergo treatment.
But he emerged last week, first posting an essay about his bout with the cancer and radiation treatment at VanityFair.com; then later in a video-blog interview with The Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Much of the media chat since then has turned to the question of whether Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, would show a little mercy and perhaps accept God. His answer has been an emphatic "No." And even if he did at some point in the future pray to God, it could only be taken as bestial ravings of a man who’s clearly lost his mind; a man whose central feature distinguishing him from all other beasts–his intellect–had left him.
Enter Primo Levi. In his TNR essay, Linker argues that Levi, a Jewish atheist and scientist who survived Auschwitz, made a similar point in "The Drowned and The Saved," published posthumously in 1989. As Levi wrote: "I entered [Auschwitz] as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day." But he did have his doubts. He describes how once, while he waiting in line where S.S. guards decided who went on working and who went to the gas chamber, he "felt the need to ask for help and asylum."
But "equanimity prevailed," he writes, adding, "one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurb…but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable."
That sounds a lot like Hitchens. And it’s why Linker argues that their collective position represents a fundemental disconnect between what a rational skeptic understands to be the fundamental nature of truth, and what the religious believer understands it to be. More to the point: rational skeptics believe that any objective truths about the world can be arrived at only through our own human intuition. This is not to reduce the rationalist position to pure intellectual reasoning, of course, since much of the knowledge a rationalist arrives at comes from emotional and sensory experience.
Rationalists may accept the limitations of the human reason, too. But if they do so, it is only in the greater appreciation of the limits of human beings; it is not, conversely, to cede whatever ground man cannot grasp to a Higher Authority. In other words, God does not pick up where human reason leaves off. As Linker writes: "Far more reliable are the sober, critical reflections of a man in good health, protected from danger, insulated from threats to his well being. That, for Levi and Hitchens, is a man at his best and most capable of determining the truth of things."
But a believer sees it differently. It is only when our clairvoyance and good health fail us that we truly understand what it means to be human. Only in these instances of total vulnerability are able to fully comprehending our limitations. And when those instances are forced upon us by our fellow man, as in the case of Auschwitz, we must reckon with man’s essential depravity. His wickedness. At these moments, how can we not accept a higher force capable of redeeming us, of showing us Truth, sweetness, light?
This is how Linker puts it: "For the religious person, human beings are at their best when they accept these truths and live humbly in their light, offering up their existential anguish as prayers, opening themselves up to the possible existence of a providential divinity who will answer those prayers and grant salvation from the horror of obliteration. Human beings are at their worst, by contrast, when they deny the fact of their frailty, deluding themselves into believing in their self-sufficiency."
This is a much more signficant contribution to the so far churlish discussions that have surrounded Hitchens’ illness. The more important question is not whether an atheist can find God in a foxhole, so to speak, but whether the God of that atheist finds is anything worth believing in.