Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hitch and Mother Teresa

A thought-experiment: Imagine that God and Heaven and Hell all exist. (some of you already believe all of that, I know.)

Imagine that Christopher Hitchens -- "Hitch" to many of his friends and admirers -- went to Heaven when he died. Hitch is surprised that Heaven exists, and surprised again that he's being let in. "You guys are good sports," he says to Saint Peter. (Hitch says this because he was an atheist and extremely critical of religion. The subtitle of one of his books is "How Religion Poisons Everything.") Saint Peter smiles, holding open the gate, and corrects Hitch: "Not 'us guys.' just one guys decides who's in. Just the Big Guy."

Hitch is so overcome with emotion that when he tries to speak he cannot. Saint Peter smiles and nods. It's pretty clear to see what Hitch is thinking and feeling. To Hitch's unspoken but obviously-visible statement, Peter replies, "Yeah, you're gonna like the Big Guy. Everybody does."

With the gate closed behind him, Hitch walk on in over the floor of clouds, spotting Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Paul Sarte -- and there's Abraham Lincoln! And Lincoln recognizes him, and waves! Hitch is very surprised and flattered that Lincoln would take any notice of him --

-- and then he see Mother Teresa and gets very upset.

The reason this is funny, as some of you know, is that Hitch was severely critical of Mother Teresa, portraying not as an angel of mercy but as a sadistic monster who thrived on the suffering of others and did much less to alleviate that suffering than she is widely believed to have done, and much less than anyone in her position could easily have done.

And the reason I wrote out this little thought experiment is that for a very long time I assumed that Hitch's portrait of Mother Teresa (see his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, published in 1995) was accurate. (Yes, the book's title is a bit egregiously nasty. Well, nasty is a subjective call.) Just very recently, though, it occurred to me that my negative image of Mother Teresa relied entirely on Hitch's say-so, and I reflected that I had been taking the word of the same man who flatly stated that religious poisons everything, which I find to be an utterly absurd oversimplification of the actions of billions of people over the course of tens of thousands of years or more, actions which I cannot characterize as 100% poisonous; and that Hitch is also the same man, and for all I know the only person on Earth, who supported both W's invasion of Iraq in 2002 and Ralph Nader's campaign for the Presidency in 2004; and that he, like most or all of the other leading New Atheists, made many statements about Islam which I find to be beyond the pale -- in short, it occurred to me just very recently that for decades I had been taking the word of a man about Mother Teresa, a man whose word I generally didn't take about most things. We both believe that God was invented by mankind and not that mankind was created by God, but -- now that it occurs to me that he has been the sole authority for my picture of Mother Teresa, so that I wonder whether that picture is accurate -- I can't think of anything else on which we agree.

Well, there's the so-called Hitch's Razor: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." But it's not as if I hadn't already figured that out. Okay, if I tried hard I might find a dozen things upon which Hitch and I agree. But without trying hard at all I can find many more than a dozen things he wrote or said which I find to be perfectly absurd.

And so I find myself compelled to wonder: is there anything at all to Hitch's version of Mother Teresa's care for the poor and sick, which seems like it was a terrible misfortune for those poor and sick people? (He also described Bill Clinton as a monster. Add that to the list of his opinions I find to be absurd.)

I know there are many of you who assume that Mother Teresa was a monster, as I did until -- well, until just a few days ago, actually. Maybe she was. I don't actually know. But for those of you who assume so, I have only one question -- do you have any evidence for this view other than what Hitch said and wrote?


  1. Hitchens' accounts include statements from people who worked with MT, do they not?

    1. Yeah, and that's pretty conclusive, considerably that nobody ever worked with her and then had good things to say. Oh wait -- bazillions of people did.