De mortuis nil nisi bonum, goes the old adage. Loosely translated, this means, ‘If you can’t say anything nice about a dead man, shut up.’ Not being a Spartan, I’d say that ought to depend on the man.
Would a Russian not have been allowed to say nasty things about Stalin in 1953? Or an Auschwitz survivor about Hitler in 1945? Or the grieving English parents about Fred West in 1995? Of course they would. They could even have been forgiven a wild celebration.
Well, you might say, there are no rules without exceptions. Nil nisi bonum doesn’t cover those who destroy lives. Agreed. Do let’s exempt such destructive personages from this otherwise universal injunction. All we have to do now is explain what we mean by destroying lives. Surely it can’t be just murder?
Ideas, and words that convey them, can cause more damage than guns and bombs. After all, it’s words that can cause guns to be fired, not guns than can cause words to be uttered. As the history of the fateful 20th century shows, the pen isn’t just mightier than the sword. It’s also more murderous.
Without the hateful drivel churned out by Marx and the pre-revolutionary harangues by Lenin, those 60 million Russians murdered by the Bolsheviks might have lived to old age. Without Hitler spewing out venom largely extracted from the writings of German Romanticists, all those millions wouldn’t have suffered horrific deaths.
Yes, the physical murders were still inflicted by physical means: bullet, bomb, gas, cold steel, inhuman torture. But as ever the physical was secondary; the metaphysical – thoughts, words, pamphlets – primary.
Ferocious attacks on Christianity take pride of place among metaphysical crimes against humanity. For a blow aimed at the founding tenets of our civilisation strikes at the civilisation itself.
Whether God punishes such attacks by death is known to Him only. But anyone who has ever stooped to arguing with strident atheists, or indeed reading their books, can testify to the punishment exacted immediately and universally: idiocy. And it doesn’t matter whether the culprit was stupid to begin with or, as some are, brilliant.
The cleverest man in the world is reduced to a blithering idiot the moment he launches his attacks. If previously rigorous and logical in his rhetoric, he starts mouthing arguments that wouldn’t survive 10 seconds of intelligent inquiry. If previously eloquent and precise in his speech, he begins to use words that have no meaning. If normally brilliant, he becomes dim. The only way for an intelligent atheist to retain his intellectual integrity is to steer clear of the subject, as many of my friends do.
By way of proof just look at the subtitle of a book written by a man widely celebrated for his intelligence and wit: How Religion Poisons Everything. Which religion are we talking about here? There is no such thing as religion in general, only concrete religions, each with its own dogma, history, theology, liturgical practices and ultimately way of life. Using the word in the abstract betokens ignorance and mental laziness.
And ‘everything’? Would that by any chance include Christian charities, alms houses, schools, hospital, hospices – the care for the sick, the old and the orphans, praised even by that great foe of Christianity, Julian the Apostate?
Yes, the atheist would argue, but look at the crimes committed in the name of Christianity. True, there were many. Nothing to compare with the best part of half a billion people killed in the first godless century, the 20th, but still. People have been killed in the name of Christ.
They’ve also been killed in the name of Mohammed, Napoleon, Cyrus, Louis (add your own numeral), George (ditto) – in fact in the name of enough people and causes for us to realise that perhaps it’s not about the cause. It’s about man’s nature.
People kill, and no religion, including Christianity, can prevent that. Christ wasn’t out to change man’s nature. His aim was to show how man can do this for himself. Perdition is often collective, but salvation is always individual, and God didn’t deprive individuals of freedom, including the freedom to make wrong choices. He showed the path, but it’s up to us to take it or not. But our strident atheist can’t grasp the kind of subtleties that wouldn’t be beyond him on any other subject.
And yet, I’ve been unable to mention Hitchens by name throughout this article. I can’t claim that I’ve suddenly acquired respect for him or his thoughts. I haven’t.
But I do respect death, and the scathing remarks that would have rolled off my pen two days ago are refusing to come out. Instead, I’d like to offer my sympathy to the family of the deceased. And I hope that those of you who know how will join me in praying for Christopher Hitchens’s soul. May God, whom he hated, have mercy on him.