Damon Linker makes a great observation, in discussing Hitchens and death and god. He compares Hitchens on the difference between his lucid self and the thing he could be turned into by drugs or pain, to Primo Levi on entering Auschwitz as a non-believer and exiting it the same way, and cites a too-devout Christian former colleague of his who had only contempt for Levi’s stoicism, calling it sinful pride.
Levi and Hitchens imply that a person’s capacity to determine the truth depends on his or her ability to think calmly, coolly, dispassionately. It depends on the capacity to bracket aspects of one’s subjectivity (like intense emotions, including fear of imminent death) that might distort one’s judgment or obstruct the effort to achieve an unbiased, objective view of the world in itself. This is the outlook of the scientist (Levi was a chemist), the philosopher, the champion of rational enlightenment, the secular intellectual and social critic. From this standpoint, the terrified, irrational effusions of a man facing his own extinction are no more to be trusted than a blind man’s account of a crime scene: each witness lacks the capacity to perceive, make sense of, and accurately judge the essential facts. 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.
Religious believers—including my devoutly religious colleague at First Things—make very different assumptions about the proper path to truth and what constitutes a man at his best. As Rod Dreher noted in a post about Hitchens’ recent statements, a Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries…
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…
Levi and Hitchens reside in the first camp, believing that they are most themselves when they are healthy and free—at the height of their human powers; whatever they may feel or say (or be tempted to say) in moments of weakness or degradation deserves to be dismissed as inauthentic. But the devout reside in the second camp, insisting that human beings are truest to themselves—most authentic—when they are most vulnerable.
That’s a beautiful point, and it clarifies what’s at stake. The devout think that humans are at their best when they are damaged: weak, suffering, miserable. The undevout think we are at our best when we are at our best – strong, healthy, functioning well, not afraid or depressed or flattened by grief.
Well which would it be? Is a sick, deaf, lame, tired dog a dog at its best or is it a dog that is not even itself anymore – that is no more than a tube to ingest and exrete food?
It’s the same for humans. I’ll come over all Aristotelian here and say that humans are at their best when they are best at doing what humans do – talking, thinking, laughing, making, designing, inventing, cooking, dancing, singing, and a thousand things more. That is humans at their best – when they’re living up to their potential. A human that is too lazy and apathetic to do anything but slump on a couch and watch tv 18 hours a day is not a human at her best, and neither is one who is physically damaged to the point of surrender.
If a gang kidnapped you and tortured you until you agreed to betray a friend to them – would that be you at your best? Hardly. If “god” takes advantage of your illness and pain to get you to surrender – would that be you at your best? I see absolutely no reason to think so.