Over loud pleas for “human decency” from the frequently indecent (and inhuman) Hannity, Hitchens put the boot in: Falwell was “a vulgar fraud and crook,” and it was a shame there was no hell for him to go to. Ralph Reed, as soon as he opened his mouth, was denounced as a “religious rip-off artist.” Hitchens’s last line, lobbed coolly into the prattling final seconds of the show (you have to listen for it), probably short-circuited a few senior TV sets: “If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.”
Hitchens has a particularly truculent way of filling the screen. He glowers, and under studio lights his large, low-slung face — with its rather delicate features gathered nouvelle-cuisine style in the center — is generally some odd shade of green or pale ochre. A very earthly, unsanctified figure. But seen here, knee-deep in a brood of vipers and laying about him the sword of righteousness, the sweating Hitchens was momentarily — one trembles to say it — Christ-like.
Sam Harris is less effective on TV: he sits quietly, not blinking, as if he’s decided that the proper demeanor for a rationalist is one of spooky robotic evenness. But in his writing, when given the proper theme, he, too, can blaze into near-messianic eloquence. On the Vatican’s recent deliberations on the subject of limbo, for example, he is splendidly scathing. Limbo, or so Pope Pius X declared in 1905, is where “children who die without baptism go . . . where they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either.” The point is that they go there forever. To float about in grayness, waving wanly at each other.
The Vatican’s Internal Theological Commission has been chewing over this little nub of dogma for several years, much to Harris’s disgust. “Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this?” he seethes in Letter to a Christian Nation. “Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of un-baptized children after death? How can an educated person think this anything but a hilarious, terrifying, and unconscionable waste of time? When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters, the whole enterprise begins to exude a truly diabolic aura of misspent human energy.” (On April 20, the commission issued its findings: “Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered . . . give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that un-baptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision.”)
The limits of knowingness
The atheist authors are not without glibness. Their nose-in-the-air dismissal of centuries of religious tradition, of the hordes of worshipful dead who have gone before us, smacks frequently of what G.K. Chesterton called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Tertullian, Maimonides, and Saint Augustine come in for a bit of anachronistic abuse, and some rather predictable fun is had with the God of the Old Testament — that perennial straight man for all freethinkers.