Reminders

John Geiger speaks with Christopher Hitchens on religion

By December 1, 2010
OfflinePhoto of John Geiger

The sixth semi-annual Munk debate, held in Toronto, between Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and Christopher Hitchens, author of the best-selling God is Not Great, took up the question whether religion is a force for good or evil. Before their confrontation, Mr. Hitchens sat down with John Geiger, to reflect on faith, or the absence thereof.

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In discussion: Christopher Hitchens

John Geiger discusses the role of faith as a force of good or evil in the world with noted author and athiest Christopher Hitchens. A transript follows. Video and audio versions can be found at globeandmail.com here.

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John Geiger: When did you know you were a non-believer? Was there a moment you decided, "this is nonsense" and I'm thinking here of Mrs. [Jean] Watts.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Well to answer your first question the first bit of your question is the better half of it because it is more I think a matter of realizing that one isn't, for many of us at any rate. rather than as for some I know, having had beliefs or thought one had them and having them fall away or indeed, suddenly, find then not any longer tenable. I think...[garble]

I must have been 10, I suppose. When I was a little boy, at a little boy's boarding school in Devonshire, my country of birth. Religion is compulsory in English schools, you know. And it's not just taught as a subject but Christianity is taught as true, as well as in scripture lessons. And out scripture teacher, Mrs. Watts, was also our nature teacher. So in very beautiful way taught about birds, trees. I used to know a lot more about all that than I do now. And one day, Mrs. Watts, who was a modest old woman, I think overreached herself and tried to combine role of scripture and nature teaching. And said, you notice, boys, that God has made the vegetation and the trees and the grass very green, a lovely kind of green, which is the most restful colour to our eyes. And imagine instead if they were orange, or puce, or magenta or something. So that shows that God is good. And I remember thinking, 'I know nothing about chlorophyll, photosynthesis, let alone natural selection.' But I remember thinking, 'that's nonsense.' That must be untrue. If either thing adapted to the other, it would have been our eyes to the vegetation, surely. And it's one of those little proofs of a large thing ... Once you have a thought like that you essentially can't unthink it. And I started to notice if I hadn't already, other things about the scriptures too that didn't appeal. So, you couldn't call that a conversion, exactly, or a revelation or a counter-revelation. It was more, as you implied with your first point, discovering this was meaningless to me as a way of thinking.

Geiger: Was that solidified at some point? Were you at university or was there some moment where you felt really an accumulation of these sorts of observations and you felt this is...

Hitchens: Well, I noticed as I grew up, I noticed other things about it. Also, I think in my schools days, I noticed it was a very powerful reinforcement tool for authority. They had the masters of the schools, also the man who conducted the service. Just as Her Majesty the Queen as well as being head of the state, was head of the Church of England. And so, I thought it was extremely convenient for certain kinds of traditional authority to be able to claim some sort of religious justification. And that also put me on my guard against it. I read Betrand Russell's famous book, Why Not Christian, at around that time I would think, and found it fairly persuasive. But of course, for a good bit of time I'm talking about I was born in 1949, I was in university in the 60s and so forth. It was a very political time, but religion wasn't a huge subject. I mean, most people were, if religious, fairly mildly so as is the Anglican communion. What Shelley, in his famous essay, called the necessity of atheism,. wasn't something that troubled me very much. I just thought it was the more intelligent way to think. And I distrusted those who claimed divine authority. There may or may not be a creator, but there's no human being who can speak in his or her name. So it's more in the last few years, it seemed to be a matter of urgency to say the gains made by the Enlightenment, the permission to think about things without religious intimidation really need to be defended and need to be reasserted. That plus the enormous developments in the natural sciences, the amazing discoveries we've recently made about our own nature, through the human genome project, and about, we're only grazing on the outer fringes of it, the nature and origins of the cosmos all seem to me to make the argument a lot clearer and more interesting and more pressing than it used to be. Hence the misleading term new atheist which is applied to people like myself. There's nothing par new about it except with the enormous new discoveries and the way that they've been opposed by some people of faith to say the least, and then the challenge of theocratic barbarism, being felt very immediately. I think that's the one thing that combines me with my co-thinkers on this matter, those we disagree on quite a range of other things.

Geiger: Does a moral hierarchy exist on religions today? Are some a greater force for good in the world than others or are they essentially moral equivalents? As your book subtitle read, 'God poisions everything.'

Hitchens: Well, should I start with the 'poisons everything?' Perhaps I should. Ok, I'll ask for trouble if I put on a provocative subtitle, but I mean by it, not of course it poisons Chinese food or tantric sex or Niagara falls or something but it does attack us in our deepest integrity. It says we wouldn't know right from wrong if it wasn't for divine permission. It immediately makes us, essentially, slaves. And it has to be opposed for that reason. And such a radical frontal attack on human dignity, it seems to me, that it does leach into everything. And it has the effect of making good people say and do wicked things. For example, a morally normal person when presented with a new baby would not set about its genitals with a sharp stone or a knife. He would have to think God needed that. No, it wouldn't occur to him otherwise. It make intelligent people say stupid things, commits them to saying stupid things such as they are objects of a divine design. As well as being stupid, very conceited by the way. They claim believers to be so modest. That's what I mean by the poison. And because of that, I do tend to think it applies in general. My younger daughter goes to a Quaker school in Washington, the same one as the president's children. ... There was a time when the Quakers ran the most sadistic prisons in North America and were fond of excommunicating people for the smallest things such as supporting the American Revolution, for example. If they'd been more powerful, they might have been worse. ... any surrender of reason in favour of faith contains the same danger it seems to me. Fluctuates over time. Before, I've been asked in the 1930s what I thought was the most dangerous religion I almost certainly would have said Roman Catholicism because of its then pretty much undisguised alliance with the Fascist parties in Europe, for which it has not yet succeeded in apologizing enough, in my opinion. But has, least admitted it was true. It was very dangerous then. I now think obviously, or rather self-evidently, Wahabbi fundamentalist Islam and its equivalents in messianic Shiism , the Shia equivalent of that Sunni theory, practice, are as dangerous especially because they could get a hold of weapons, or a weapon of mass destruction. So we would find out, with a little speculation, we used to have after lights out when we were young, what would really happen if a really wicked person got a hold of a nuclear bomb and now we're going to find out. When the messianic meets the apocalyptic, watch out.

Geiger: So, in a highly globalized world, religious systems are very much in the mix. Can religion at least provide common values and ethical foundation. Obviously, there's differences but is there some sort of root?

Hitchens: Religion can't provide that. Moral values come from innate human solidarity. They're the values we need, have needed to survive as a species. Knowing we have responsibilities to other people, for example, knowing that certain types of behaviour are worse than antisocial. Religion, to an extent believes that, but it doesn't always. It takes it from us. No, it couldn't provide it. All it could do is lay claim to it, a claim that I would deny. And because it's not in the nature of faith to be really universal -- it's quite extraordinary the number of claims that are made by people of faith to be the holders of the only faith, It's not enough for them to say they believe in God, or get values from it, they have to say God revealed to us. And the wars of religion alone would be enough to negate this claim. .... also to show what we already know, that religion is manmade. So it's one of our artefacts, along with, fortunately with, genuine humanistic morality. And I think it's essential to choose between the two.

Geiger: You write that your own particular atheism is very much a protestant atheism, that you, I guess it comes out of your own experience when you were young. But is there something peculiar to the King James Bible or to the Church of England practice of faith that you think inspired your journey.

Hitchens: No. All I mean by that is the kind of atheist I originally was, was someone who felt very taken by, or stricken by love for what some have called the authorized or the King James version of the Bible. ... I found that it didn't answer, it didn't answer morally, it didn't answer philosophically. It was that that I cut my teeth on. Friends of mine who are a former Shi'a 12th imam, believers for example, have had a totally different experience coming through to the other side. But I must say I recognize their dilemma. They were told to do it. 12 imams, one of whom has gone missing, who is only waiting to return. I think that reminds me of something, almost certainly plagiarized from an original, not very persuasive script. But I think people have all to find their own way. What I do find is what the experience of unbelief in formal belief is remarkably similar. Very, very similar. So I deduce from that, that the original beliefs are probably very similar too. For all the outward discrepancy, the willingness on their part to make a cause of war. If you look at the number of Shia muslims who've been killed by Sunni Muslims in the last year, it vastly exceeds the number of casualties inflicted in the Iran, excuse me, the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts by the other side.

Geiger: Many people, I think, derive a pleasure value from religion in part because of the ceremony. Does ritual play a part in your own life? Is there some aspect of that that's missing?

Hitchens: I say in the opening of God is Not Great, that one of the huge advantages or being a non-believer is that you don't have to keep on reinforcing your non-belief by going to ceremonies. And in the keeping of company, sort of try to make it seem more true because it's being affirmed in a crowd. Or by ritual, or by incantation of any sort. We don't need that. And I can run into a non-believer who I haven't known before and in a very short time discover roughly what we have in common. But we don't have to keep reminding ourselves, hey, remember, keep the faith on this point. It's absolutely what we don't need. I don't even belong to any atheist or secular group for example. I'm a little suspicious of people who do. Though I can understand how many of them feel isolated, especially in some parts of the United States. But I think the need for that reaffirmation is kind of a pathetic thing, even when it can have beautiful outcomes, as in certain celebrations ...

If some people, nonetheless do find it comforting or consoling, I say I wish them joy with it. I just don't want to have to hear about it. In other words, I don't want at Christmas time, to know anything the government says or does, such as displays of Christmas trees or indeed, Santa Claus, or nativity scenes, or anything of this sort. ... I don't want them teaching it in school. I don't want them asking for government subsidies for it. I don't want them saying it's illegal to ridicule it. All of these things they do, all the time. I'd prefer not to have to know what these people think. Isn't it enough for them that they have a God who loves them and will give them salvation? I mean, if I believed that, I'd be happy. They're not happy. They won't be happy until everyone else believes it too. And that's surely a very bad sign and it's a sign of intellectual and moral weakness.

Geiger: You don't have a Christmas tree, I take it.

Hitchens: Sure, I do. As long as I've been a father, I've always had one. And I have Passover as well, in homage to another tradition of which I have a partial claim.

Geiger: Your mother was Jewish.

Hitchens: So is my wife. So was my grandmother. So is my daughter. Anyone who didn't like or wanted to defame or threaten the Jewish people would be insulting my wife, my mother, my mother my late and much beloved mother in law, my granny. I don't need to say anything for myself, surely.

Geiger: Can you name a theological work, a religious text or philosophical work that has had a profound influence on you? I guess, either way.

Hitchens: Well, Ronald Newman's Apologia is a very interesting, very absorbing book, I'd have to say. As is Augustine's City of God. And there's something else I thinking of what I can't quite reach at the moment. Of course, in order to appreciate them one has to get through an enormous amount of self-obsession, self-importance. So much in fact, it gets in the way because you think what kind of humility is this? That they feel that every episode in their own lives is somehow a world-historical moment. Not to say cosmic. So I've tried, and it may as well be a failure of imagination on my part. Oh, of course, I should have mentioned Pensées, thoughts of Pascal, which are very ingenious. Written by a man of science, a great mathematician. A theorist .... And interestingly enough addressed, as he puts it, to the man who is so made that he cannot believe. Pascal knew that it's not really true, that all people are naturally believers. It may be true of a large group of people in a lot of times and places but it's equally true to say what some of us are constituted the other way. We can't take this seriously, it's gibberish to us. Or, worse. And Pascal understands this and is trying to speak directly and, well, that's a nice change.

Geiger: Is there contemporary work?

Hitchens: Not that I know of. I've read because my little, our little, movement the 'new atheists' are called, have generated a whole shelf of rebuttals and I feel obliged to read those.

Geiger: Including your brother.

Hitchens: Including, indeed, my baby brother. And I feel under some sense of obligation anyone nice enough to [inaudible]. And look, how could it be otherwise. Religion is not going to come up with any new arguments. If you know the old ones, you know them. And I would presume to say I know them reasonably well. You don't come up with anything... how could you? The most you could get now is what I would call a sort of parasitism. Those who used to be very dubious about the theory of evolution, if not hostile, now say, alright, alright! In fact, now we think about it, it is true. It's so true and it's so beautiful and it's so intricate, so fascinating, it must have taken God to do it. Well, that's not thinking at all. That's just saying include us in. Same with the Big Man. Didn't like it, now they love because they say it's so awe-inspiring, it must be divine. Well, that's not a new argument because it isn't an argument.

Geiger: The concept of redemption is at the essence of Christianity. And even as an atheist, is there anything in that? Is there anything that you would seek redemption?

Hitchens: The desire for a second chance let's say, or the desire perhaps to undo or make up for one's shortcomings or let's say sentence or crimes is or should be so strong. It is for that reason that, you see, that I think religion is so dangerous because it offers a full solution to a real problem. And it comes out in Christianity in the most deplorable way, which is the idea of vicarious atonement, You can indeed be redeemed as long as you're willing to have someone else take responsibility for your own sins. That's not responsible, that's actually scapegoating. It's loading the guilt of the tribe onto a sacrificial figure. I think that's actually immoral. But it certainly answers a deeply-filled need.

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Post Date:
December 1, 2010
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John Geiger

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