Christopher Hitchens is dead. There will be people who think that as a famous atheist Hitchens was an enemy of not just religion in general but of his own cultural tradition of Christianity. In fact they will think that with his passing a threat to religion and faith has passed away no doubt to receive his "reward" of eternal damnation and the biggest surprise of his life, now extended for eternity by a God who doesn't like disbelievers and has a long memory.
Meanwhile another actor in the debate between religion and atheism - also dead - is on a fast track to canonization by the Roman Catholic Church for sainthood. Pope John Paul II is the "good Christian" that in the mind of millions of believers stood as a bulwark against the tide of official Soviet atheism at one time and also stood against another threat: the growing irrelevance of all fundamentalist religious beliefs in the age of science.
In simplest terms in the minds of the pious it would be that Hitchens was "bad" and Pope John Paul was "good." The idea might apply not just to personal morality but to the notion that Hitchens and his ilk (the other so-called New Atheists) have somehow damaged faith in general and faith in Christianity in particular while the pope and other Christian leaders, say the evangelist Billy Graham etc., have done their best to strengthen the faith of millions while guarding the reputation of Christianity and thereby defending Jesus himself.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. All the raging of today's atheist apologists combined are but a flea bite compared to the fatal blow that Christianity has been dealt by its own leadership in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
John Paul II presided over the era in which the Roman Catholic Church became known mostly for being the largest and best protected pedophile ring in the world while - simultaneously -- attacking gays, women who demanded reproductive rights and scientists doing stem cell research etc., etc., as "immoral." And Billy Graham presided over an era of American evangelical expansion at the very time when the word "Christianity" in America became synonymous with far right social causes and above all the capitalist pro-corporatism that smacked more of Ayn Rand than Jesus.
Put it this way: Hitchens and company attacked the idea of the supernatural as bogus. (Disclosure: I "answered" Hitchens rather harshly in one of my books on religion and before that we'd "talked" a bit via email and one or two phone calls.) Their attacks were frontal and honest. Religious people - and I am one and will be in church this Sunday - had nothing to fear from the atheists' honest critique. Conversely the leadership of Christianity has utterly corrupted the Christian witness from within.
The death of the Christian witness (especially here in America) has been brought about by two fatal wounds: First, the conflation the teachings of Ayn Rand with the teachings of Christ. Call this the American version of Jesus-wants-us-to-be-anti-government-regulation-of-business and to be anti-health-care-for-all Tea Party-type "Christianity."
Second: John Paul II's real place in history is that of a pope that protected his institution rather than his flock. (I describe this in some detail in my book Sex, Mom and God.)While boys and girls were being abused by bishops and priests around the globe he looked the other way, covered up for them and did all he could to "contain" the scandal, a scandal that is still unfolding.
Billy Graham and his many evangelical clones that are now running mega churches and other Religious-Industrial Complex money making empires, have done their best to turn salvation into a process of voting for Republicans and thus corporatist leaders intent on protecting the "rights" of billionaires rather than the people. Billy Graham's son Franklin, now running the Billy Graham organisation is a corporate shill and supporter of far right "pro-business" causes.
So the sins of the evangelical and Roman Catholic "Christian" leadership are the same: The Roman Catholics have sacrificed their own children to the sexual greed of pedophiles out to protect their institution and the Evangelicals have sacrificed the poor to the greed of their corporate masters to protect American businesses.
And both profound and filthy betrayals have been done to protect institutions instead of people. Both betrayals have also been accompanied by levels of hypocrisy - the "family values" "pro-life" talk by people who condone pedophiles and no health care for actual families - that would make any decent atheist blush.
Result for the "Christian" witness?
On the one hand thousands of pedophile priests and bishops have been and are now free to abuse.
On the other hand Wall Street has been and is free to abuse.
So rest in peace Christopher Hitchens. At least you tried to tell the truth as you understood it and didn't live a lie. You didn't bugger little children and you didn't look the other way while the 1 percent stole the 99 percent's money. And unlike the recent popes and the evangelical leadership if there is a judgment day you'll be fine. You only disbelieved. You did not betray the "least of these."
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book is Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway