Thursday, April 26, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, My Hero

I take a lot of pot shots as Christopher Hitchens' views on the Iraq War, largely because I think he's one of the last remaining intellectuals standing with the neocons. But there's one area where Christopher Hitchens remains, quite literally, a hero of mine: atheism. And now, Hitch has written a book, "God is Not Great," that -- if the excerpts published on Slate are any indication -- may prove to be the seminal, devastating, literary critique of religion. Here's one choice excerpt:

The argument with faith is the foundation and origin of all arguments, because it is the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city. Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children's bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to "respect" their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

Thank you, Chris Hitchens.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Ben. I look forward to reading the book now. Did you send your comments to Hitchens? You should. He is going to be brutally attacked now. --momther

5:48 PM  
Blogger AJH said...

Another great book is "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris. He really demonstrates the fallacy that religious texts were written by an omnipotent being.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read excerpts of Harris' book, and it is very good. The thing those authors and most of us rational humans hope for is that some day we really will be a rational species. It's a race against extinction and the it's not looking good for the SeaRationals. ~momther

11:14 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

My mother (or momther as she's know around here) gave me a copy of Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation." Although he's admirably adamant about his atheism, I found his arguments a little pedantic, and there were lots of straw men knocked down. That's why I'm excited for the Hitchens book: he writes with rapier wit, but he's not afraid to take on his allies too (see, e.g., his debate with Richard Dawkins over whether we should self-describe ourselves as "brights" -- an idea so pretentious I'm embarassed Dawkins has advanced it.)

9:48 AM  
Blogger Jimmimoose said...

Having not read the books in question, I can't speak to their brilliance or lack of such. But I don't really think we're ever going to see a conclusive, authoritative literary assault on religion and religiosity that disproves it once and for all. It's not even as simple of a matter as comparing apples and oranges, it's worse than that. Intellectual criticisms of religion are limited in just how far into religion they can bore, there's a fundamental divide in theoretical approach that cannot be bridged.

To sum up VERY quickly my thought (I'll go into it more later if you want), I don't think there'll ever be a "smoking gun" intellectual critique that will mean anything to anyone who experiences genuine faith. The very notion of criticism and evaluation are notions posited into a logical framework that is no more inherently "true" than religion is. And if that's the case, then what does it matter what Hitchens says? He's only reaching those who're already somewhat similar in thought.

But like I said, I haven't read the books, and I'm not sure that this is quite the argument that he's making. If my thoughts are off target/topic, I do apologize! It's just an interesting subject. :-)


10:08 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


There is a difference between criticizing the idea of "God" and attacking the absurdity of the world's major (and not so major) religions. The philosophical debate over the existence of God is not going away anytime soon. But the religious fundamentalism that is sweeping through the United States (and around the globe) is a relatively new phenomena, and not one that I think is inevitable or irreversible. Hitchens is unlikely to persuade people of deep fundamentalist conviction, but what he may do -- and what I want to do -- is to change the tenor of the debate, and expose the silly and untenable foundations that religious fundamentalism rests upon. Somehow, this project has succeeded in Europe but failed here.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Jimmimoose said...

Ah! Good, see, that's why I attached that proviso to the end of my little ramble there, I wasn't sure what specifically Hutchens was going after. In terms of the particular dimensions of religious fundamentalisms and narrowly-focused dogmas, yeah, I totally agree and hope for the same.

As for the differences between European and American culture, it puzzles the hell out of me, too. I can identify several reasons for what goes down in the US, but nothing I see should be unique to our country, unless it really is as simple as a lack of plurality and multi-nationalism leading to linear thinking on the part of our religious friends. That seems to be the one abiding, concretely physical distinction between the US and our friends across the pond, but that seems too easy an answer.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Jimmimoose said...

Dammit, I called him Hutchens. Sorry, I've still got football on the mind, and everytime I go to type "Hitchens," it's coming out "Hutchinson"

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At Ben’s request, a few comments on “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens; reasonable people may see it differently....

This is not a defense of organized religion; the catalog of horrors and stupidities compiled by Christopher Hitchens is too extensive and compelling. And, I share with him the desire and hope for a free, civil, and rational secular society. I will avoid discussing several assertions about specific beliefs that are open to debate and focus on one point: I will assert that the root cause of these horrors are not religion per se but go deeper and are darker and, if true, to eliminate religion by itself will not correct the sickness. To use an analogy, if a death certificate lists the cause of death as “stopped breathing and heart stopped,” this is technically true but not the heart of the matter. If it states the cause of death as “shot in head by shotgun” we have a better idea of what happened.

There are many ways to define religious Fundamentalism but I will define it as having these characteristics: (1) accepting a set of statements as True (i.e., “divinely inspired”); (2) the statements are considered a comprehensive explanation of reality (“all you need to know that is important”); and (3) the statements are exclusive (“we are right and everyone else is wrong”). There are secular systems of belief that have similar properties (e.g., Marxist-Leninism) and I will, as shorthand, refer to these systems as Absolutist. If we compare the two, it is hard to see how religion can be singled out and considered causal; the root cause seems deeper in our psyche than religious beliefs. Let me list a few examples:

(1) Take, for instance, the twentieth century. By any measure (the number of people affected, the severity of the horrors inflicted, and so on), the most harm to our fellow human beings was inflicted by National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism, two Absolutist systems of belief. The point is NOT to defend religion in comparison but to point out that religion has no special place when it comes to committing horrors.

(2) Let’s take an example that turns down the metaphorical heat. In chapter four, Christopher Hitchens describes how religious beliefs can be dangerous to our health. All true and all tragic. But let’s remember the story of Joseph Lister. Lister demonstrated that if obstetricians washed their hands in a simple antiseptic solution, there was a dramatic (startling) decline in post-delivery infections and deaths. It was a simple procedure and would cause no harm so why not use it? But the medical establishment refused for some time to accept Lister’s findings. Eventually it was accepted (a great strength of science is that eventually “truth will out”) but the data did not change; the information and proof were there all along. There are many such examples in the history of science. Science has self-correcting mechanisms built in but scientists are human beings and human beings tend to cling to dogmas, religious or otherwise.

(3) Finally, let’s use Christopher Hitchens as an example; we can agree that he is not a religious person. However, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he showed some of the traits he decries about religious belief. Hitchens vilified anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq. I think it is fair to say that he considered anyone who opposed the invasion as not just wrong, but immoral. I do not recall Hitchens ever acknowledging that reasonable and decent people could have a different point of view; in fact, I will send a check for $100 to “the charity of your choice” to anyone who can cite a statement by Hitchens before the invasion that acknowledges this. To be fair, Hitchens is not the only one who had this point of view. We are now living with the consequences.

The shorthand summary is that the horrors and stupidity of religious beliefs are not the cause but the effect – the effect of the tendency of our species to desire and cling to dogmas and submit to authority.

-- Big Daddy

8:12 AM  

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