“Letters to a Young Contrarian” book review

Posted: January 25, 2011 in Book Reviews
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Not long ago I wrote a book review on “God Is” by Doug Wilson, in which the pastor/apologist takes apart a book by atheist Christopher Hitchens. Well, I recently finished a different book by Hitchens called “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”

In one sense, this is Hitchens teaching others how to be exactly like him. However, it is also the complete opposite. “Contrarian” can have many definitions, but it is basically someone who thinks for himself. It is the ultimate form of “Don’t tell me what to do/think/say/be/feel etc etc etc.” A Contrarian is often described as a Radical, Dissident, Maverick, Loose Cannon, Rebel, Angry Young Man or any number of unflattering (not to the Contrarian!) terms to describe someone who thumbs his nose at anything not thought up by his own infallible intellect. In short, it describes Hitchens as closely as any definition could!

The book is a collection of letters written to a fictional recipient. Hitchens takes on the role of a “mentor” in teaching his student how to think independently. This is Hitchens’ manifesto for being a rebel black sheep without a cause! Of course, it is all written with a sense of irony since contrarians don’t really listen to anyone (even other contrarians).

Of course, that may not be entirely true. Indeed, we all take advice and learn from each other, and I’m sure Hitchens would not disagree with that. However, this book is his declaration that we ultimately only have ourselves to trust in this world of masks, fakes, smooth-talkers, agendas, vote-grabbers, indoctrination, and herd-mentality. Basically, kids, don’t trust anyone…not even me.

Hitchens says we should not be afraid to voice our opinion and disagree with the moral majority—even if it is unpopular. In fact, if it is unpopular, there just might be something to it! If Hitchens can be credited with one thing, it is that he is not afraid to mix it up in the arena of debate. If it weren’t for people like him (at least in his own eyes) we would all be blindly following the “cool crowd” into whatever ideas seemed most popular to the majority.

He includes a chapter devoted to religion, which showcases many of the arguments I’ve heard him use in public debates. It goes without saying that the man who would later write “god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” doesn’t hold a high view of the divine. His criticisms are rife with problems, but there are books and debates that uncover most of those (some are listed below), so I will not do it here. Except, perhaps, for one comment. For a man who believes in blind evolution, where we are simply animals acting upon the impulses of our DNA, he sure has a lot of moral criticisms. Of course, he also has no definition of morality. If it is truly just the consensus of the majority, well, that definition seems to go against the very premise of this book! But in order to make absolute statements on issues such as morality, you need to appeal to a higher standard. For him, that is the divine god of “Reason” (We’re not worthy!). Of course, what is reason and why should we follow it? Does he come to this conclusion by using reason? Isn’t that like saying “We should base morality on the Bible because the Bible says so”? But that is a debate for another time.

Basically, it comes down to this. Hitchens is a gifted writer. He is also a very opinionated (and educated) man. He has a wide range of knowledge on various subjects, and he approaches his writing with a wicked wit and cutting edge that draws you in. He pulls heavily from modern history, as one would expect a journalist to do. At some points, this got a bit much for me, since my knowledge of many of these events is limited.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. In this review, and in my “God Is” review I have made it clear that I disagree with Hitchens. I also believe that he is entitled to receive the same harsh language that he reserves for people like me (who apparently am contributing to the poisoning of everything!). But I don’t hate Hitchens. Yes, at times he is very easy to dislike (something I’m sure he is very proud of!), but my heart breaks for him as well. He is truly a rebel without a cause, filled with criticism, mistrust, anger, and ultimately, emptiness. An exert near the end of this books reads as follows:

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity, for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

The problem is, in his atheistic worldview, none of this has any authority. We are all free to say “Thanks Mr. Hitchens, but no thanks. I will chose religion if I want.” In a world without a transcendent authority, his words get lost amidst the noise of so many others, all rising up to an empty sky of a universe that looks on us with blind, pitiless indifference.

But I have hope for Hitchens, because I believe God loves him and has the power to change the hardest heart. In a fascinating revelation in the documentary “Collision,” he recalls a conversation he had with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins. In it, Hitchens admits that even if he were able to convert every last believer–except one–to atheism, he couldn’t bring himself to eradicate religion completely. Not because there would be no one left to argue with. In fact, he admits that he doesn’t even know why, but he knows he would leave that last believer alone. Indeed, he would allow faith to live on. He concludes by saying, “And the incredulity with which he [Richard Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still, I’ve got to say.” One can only hope that all of Hitchens’ “free thinking” will one day lead him to the truth he so adamantly opposes.

Recommended Debates on DVD:

“Collision”–A very well-done documentary that follows Hitchens and Doug Wilson as they debate across the country in everywhere from pubs, to coffee shops, to university campuses. The gems, however, are in their personal conversations along the way.

“Does God Exist? A Debate” –A public debate on the existence of God between Hitchens and heavy-weight Christian apologist William Lane Craig. This is really the best of both sides going toe-to-toe!

“Can Atheism Save Europe?”–A debate between two Europeans: Hitchens and Oxford mathematician/philosopher/scientist/theologian John Lennox. Hitchens later admitted that he lost this debate to Lennox. I agree.

“God on Trial”–A debate between Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza. Although I disagree with him, I believe Hitchens actually comes out on top in this debate.

“God or No God?”–A debate between Hitchens and Larry Taunton (founder of Fixed-Point Foundation). This one is special because these two have become good friends. There is a civility and respect for the other person here that is often missing in other debates. It truly shows that, while we may strongly disagree, that is never an excuse not to love.

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Comments
  1. May-Lin says:

    Hey Mike,
    Just found your blog. Nice work!
    Have you read “The Rage Against God” by Christopher Hitchens’s brother Peter? Apparently its a pro-religion book in response to Christopher’s “God is not Great”. I wanted to read both..but thats not going to happen anytime soon.

    • mikeblackaby says:

      Hey May-Lin! Yeah I have read Peter’s book. It’s interesting, but he actually doesn’t address Christopher much directly, which is probably good. He says he has no interest in starting some heated debate against his brother (although they have disagreed on many issues). But he offers a neat perspective of someone who grew up in the same environment as Christopher, and even rejected religion for a long time, but changed his mind about it and is now a Christian. He is a gifted writer/journalist and sees the same world Christopher does, but with very different glasses on!

  2. Florine says:

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