Salon has up a pair of excepts from the book (hat tip: GeneExpression) and the following is a selection therefrom:
We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man's most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.... We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.I could note that it seems off base to compare "the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock" to a walk across the library, instead of the "plain horror" of mass slaughter of priests, nuns and active laypeople in Spain, or the sheer horror of starving Ukraine into submission or the sheer horror of sending millions of innocents to the Siberia, but that is well trodden ground and would be far too easy.
What strikes me as odd, rather, is the claim that while there may have been great religious thinkers and artists centuries ago, their like shall never be seen again. From here on, Hitchens believes, all the great men will be atheists, and all believers will be squalid little cranks.
Yet if the province of atheists is that of the library and the art gallery, as Hitchens seems to suggest, where exactly are we to find all these gems of atheist thought, art and literature?
I certainly do not claim that all great art is explicitly religious, or that all artists are good people, faithful to their religions. Far from it. Yet it seems to me that there is in the truly atheist and materialistic mind a demystifying and overly self-observing quality which does not lend itself to great art or writing.
You'd be hard put to come up with two authors more clearly atheistic in their assumptions than Camus and Sartre, and both are good writers. However, there's a tight, closed in feel to their writing. The ceiling presses down upon their characters, because there is nothing above the ceiling. Atheism will never produce a Dostoevsky or a T. S. Elliot. It may produce a Picasso, but it will not produce a Michelangelo, a Rubens or a Rembrandt. There can be a Last Judgement, but no last non judgemenalism.
This is not to say that great art and writing requires Christianity. Far from it. But I think that art beyond a certain level requires belief in something beyond the everyday material reality. Homer wrote great poetry because he wrote of the struggles of men against fate and the caprices of the gods. Virgil dealt with the conflicting moral claims that resulted from an emerging sense of objective, philosophically-based morality vs. a lingering conviction that it was necessary to do the will of the gods. Norse mythology dealt with a pantheon which was itself doomed, and yet that sense of looming destruction also held out hope for a world reborn without the pain and conflict of the present one. All of these can inspire great art.
Perhaps because it is such a modern, urban, middle-class phenomenon, the current round of strident atheist writers project instead a sense of inward-looking self satisfaction. A smallness. How could someone produce much interesting in the way of art who adhered to Richard Dawkins' "secular commandments" which include things like "Do not indoctrinate your children" and "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)"?
This is not the stuff of greatness. If great art and thought are dead, it is the comfort of modern secularism sitting in its well padded armchair that killed it.