FP: Christopher Hitchens, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
Hitchens: Nice of you to invite me again.
FP: I was very moved by your book -- a very profound and powerful read. A lot of what you said really needed to be said, and I guess it took someone like you to say it in the potent, wise and courageous way that you did. I say this, incidentally, as confusing as it may be to some readers, as a person of the Christian faith. I value and appreciate your slicing attack on the hypocrites and slime who have caused so much pain in the name of religion.
There is, obviously, another book that could be written on the good that religion has done. Also, of course, the existence of religious hypocrites and of those who commit evil in the name of religion does not negate the existence of God. And there remains the possibility that, as in Dante’s inferno, “religious” people who abuse the faith are in hell.
But we’ll get to some of this a bit later perhaps.
First, let’s begin with what led to the creation of this book. It was clearly inside your head throughout much of your life. What were some of the developments/circumstances that made you realize that you had to write it now? For instance, the title is clearly a counterpoint to what Islamic suicide bombers yell ("Allu Akbar" -- "God is Great”) before they blow themselves up. Was the image of the suicide bomber in our terror war a significant motivator for you to write the book?
Hitchens: Too kind.
Someone recently sent me an interview I gave years ago, in which I had said I wouldn't write a book advocating atheism because there was no need: the existing works were more than good enough. So my mind must have changed somewhat and, yes, I think your surmise is probably correct, it was the Islamist assault that got me off the fence.
It had done that before, in 1989, with the murder-campaign against Salman Rushdie. The crude people who were using assassins and butchers then are now about to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, so I don't apologise for my sense of urgency.
I also notice again what I noticed then, which is that "faith" leaders of other denominations tend to make excuses for Islamism. We saw it with the Vatican's recent condemnation, not of the hideous organised attack on Danish society, but of the cartoonists in Copenhagen. We see it with the softness of the so-called religious when it comes to condemning the so-called "insurgency" in Iraq. And I don't forget that the supposedly secular "Left" is actually saturated with piety and relativism - a rather sickly combination - when it comes to these matters, as well. I was very glad to launch my book-tour with a debate against the posturing figure of Al Sharpton, for example.
As to the "good" that religion has done, I state very clearly in "God Is Not Great" that many believers have done exemplary things. But I insist that they are valued for qualities and deeds that any humanist can applaud, and that supernatural authority is not required to oppose Hitler or Stalin, say, or slavery. Whereas scriptural authority WAS required, for example, to justify racism and slavery in the first place. And it is available now, to excuse the killing of apostates and infidels. We would be better off without these man-made texts, which have the effect of making normal people endorse actions and policies that only a psychopath could ordinarily be expected to approve. If you want good people to do bad things, religion is always there for you - like the rats and bacilli that lurk at the end of Camus's "La Peste" - even in periods where "faith" seems domesticated and benign. Its foundational documents are fundamentally irrational and cruel, and this tends to tell.
FP: You are right, of course, that if you want good people to do bad things, religion is always there for you. That is, unfortunately, the empirical reality of human existence.
At the same time though, my friend, our sense of morality is rooted in our conception of God and his laws. The Ten Commandments I don’t think are such an awful thing. Many of the premises of our Judea-Christian religion surely keep many humans in check. Without these foundations for morality, surely there would be more pain and evil in the world, no? Look at the former communist countries where atheists eradicated religion and replaced the Ten Commandments with class hatred. This engendered mass Holocaust. Aside from all of its mass crimes, the greatest damage done by communism was moral in its removal of religion and the replacement of it with hatred.
You are right, sir, that religion, or the exploitation of it, has caused massive barbarity. But surely the removal of religion would eradicate the very concept of morality, which would lead to something even more savage amongst humans and how we treat each other.
Hitchens: One reason why I say that faith poisons everything is that it degrades our ordinary morality and solidarity. Quite apart from the fact that the Ten Commandments are not mainly concerned with morality (more with worship and abjection) and quite apart from the things that they do NOT forbid - genocide, racism, slavery, child-abuse - I decline to believe that our ancestors ever thought that murder, theft and perjury were OK. No society ever has.
In "God Is Not Great" I also point out how this same fallacy applies in the New Testament. The story of the Good Samaritan is quite unmoored from its local ethnic and confessional context: it comes to us as the tale of a man who went out of his way to help a fellow-creature. Since the parable is told by Jesus, the man in the story cannot by definition have been a Christian. We do not need supernatural license for kindness, and we most especially do not need the offer of divine reward or hellish punishment, since these pollute the well of our better instincts.
On your point about the secular nihilists and totalitarians (our common foes, along with the jihadists) again I have a whole chapter in my book. Not to compress the whole thing but just consider Russia in 1917. Millions of ignorant and superstitious people have been told for hundreds of years that the absolute head of the state - the Czar, who is also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church - is a little higher than merely human. If you are Josef Stalin, the former seminary student, you should not even be in the dictatorship business if you cannot exploit a ready-made reservoir of credulity and servility on this scale. And mark the sequel: everything from Inquisitions and heresy-hunts to "miracles" like Lysenko's pseudo-genetics and the overall worship of the supreme leader. The task of humanism is to raise the average person above the floor on which grovelling takes place. Name me a society that has degenerated into famine and misery and fear because it has adopted the teachings of Spinoza and Jefferson and Einstein. Dare you say that these and other men had no ethics because they self-consciously rejected a personal or intervening deity?
FP: I guess we return here to the question of how ethics can exist without the notion of an existing God – a notion that Dostoevsky clearly struggled with.
Let me bring up the reality of our conscience. Doesn’t the existence of our conscience prove the existence of something greater than ourselves?
Isn’t there something innate in all of us and in our existence that proves the existence of God?
For instance, I don’t think a child is traumatized by witnessing the brutal murder of his mother because he was socially constructed to do so. He is traumatized because there is a right and wrong that transcends what humans construct it to be, and that right and wrong stems from something that is created by something greater than ourselves.
I must say that, for me, the existence of God is proven to me every day in almost everything I see. Especially the existence of love. When I see a child crave its mother’s and father’s love, and beg for a hug, I see God. When I see our need for love from one another, I see him. Surely our need for love, as one example, is not socially constructed or a reality that was just created by chance or fluke.
And surely evil is a spiritual force as well.
This is just my own faith and perspective of course. But what is your perspective on these things?
Hitchens: If you are a "pantheist", as the men I mentioned earlier (Spinoza and Jefferson and Einstein) probably or arguably were, you will agree with me that a god which is everywhere is just as likely to be nowhere in particular. If someone says that god is love I don't violently object. If he then says that love is god I find myself feeling uneasy. The undoubted existence of conscience - doing the right thing when nobody is looking, and even deriving satisfaction from the doing - need not posit the supernatural. I like to give blood when I can: I don't lose a pint but someone else gains one. I also hope to benefit when I need blood myself (I have a very rare blood group). Why intrude extraneous complexities here?
As for evil, I say in the book that I believe in its existence and even feel that I have felt its presence. But this does not lead me to infer the existence of Satan and, as you well know, believers in god only complicate their ontology when they try (or fail) to do the same.
FP: So do you wish there was a God? Do you believe that you have a soul and do you ever worry about where it might go in the afterlife? Or these are all just silly notions for you?
And if there is no God or afterlife and nothing afterwards, what then is the meaning of life? Can there be any meaning if there is no God?
What is the meaning of life for you?
Hitchens: I like to think that I can resist wish-thinking in all its forms, and I do not in any case wish that there was a supreme being, let alone a heaven or hell, because I do not desire an unalterable dictatorship of a celestial kind, which would subject me to permanent supervision and surveillance. I should add that dictatorship is even more repulsive to me when it presents itself as benign - its most common seduction.
So I am happy that there is no evidence for such a belief. The immortality of the soul (notice I do not say that I must be soul-less while I am still alive) is indeed a silly fable. The natural world is wonderful enough, with the beauty of science and the consolation of philosophy and literature. One's only hope of immortality lies in the rearing of one's children, for whom one must in due course make room. Their presence is the answer to the last part of your question. A feeling of the transcendent and the numinous is inseparable from a morally serious human existence, but it is not satisfied by myths which are in fact deeply and obviously self-centered.
FP: You refer, at one point, to your religious friends and how some of them say that you are a “seeker.” This relates to how many religious people often try to force the non-believer, usually with bullying tactics, into their own vision of the world. But as you say, you are not a “seeker” in any sense of the way these friends try to label you.
How do you interpret the psychology of religious individuals who need to impose their views? If one believes in God, one can obviously share that belief with one’s fellow man in a patient and loving way and then leave it to that individual to decide what they will do with it. That’s fine obviously. But what’s with the inability to allow another human their own space and views? What’s with the threat, and anger and terror, that some believers feel by someone else’s disbelief? In my own life experience, I have gathered that these are almost always the individuals whose own lives cannot withstand any moral scrutiny whatsoever.
In any case: if a person is so certain about God’s existence, or with the justification of going to Church, or with how they are going straight to heaven, why their inability to sleep at night at the thought of someone who doesn’t think and live like them?
What would be your analysis of the psychological mindset?
Hitchens: I'm interested very much by the lack of confidence that is displayed by the faithful. Why doesn't their conviction - that they are divinely supervised and loved and even saved - make them happy? Why must they insist that I have to believe it, too? I take their anxiety as a manifestation of a repressed form of doubt and fear, and their claim to know god's will as the arrogant presumption of a reinforcement for a weak case.
I also have come to the conclusion that religious belief, even in its supposedly benign form, is the clue to the origin of totalitarianism. A permanent inescapable surveillance; the abolition of the private thought; the constant guilt and fear; the irremovable and unchallengeable authority; the sado-masochism of begging for rewards and fearing punishments - this is the species at its most servile and primeval level. The wish for a Big Brother comes from the childhood of the race, and has to be outgrown in order for us to develop self-respect.
FP: You discuss the pathology in religion regarding sexuality and how the guardians of religion, while moralizing about sex, are sometimes the worst sexual offenders there are. And yet their victims, who are usually children, receive no defense while the perpetrators themselves are exonerated because they act in the name of religion. I shake your hand in standing up for the victims of these mass crimes.
The parts in your book about the mutilation of babies’ genitalia, male and female, and the great damage and harm it does, is clearly instructive. It is incredible that such silence prevails in the world while this violence is perpetrated on millions upon millions of infants in the name of religion. Can you talk a bit about this?
Hitchens: Another proof that religion is not just man-made but Male-made (as I say at some length in the book) is its primitive attitude to sex and especially to female sexuality. The disgust at menstrual blood, the insistence on virgin births (common to the announcement of all prophets or god-kings), the revulsion at the genitalia and the wish for quasi-castration - all this is deeply unwholesome and has led to the infliction of misery upon countless generations.
Again, I would insist that no morally normal person would agree to inflict cruelty upon children if this were not supposedly mandated by heaven, and that is why I regard religion as a source of immorality rather than otherwise. It is not that we fail to live up to its precepts: it is that its precepts operate on a level below the recognisable moral norm.
The idea of the Apocalypse, or end of days, is another very dangerous preachment of this kind and I hope you will ask me to say a few words about that, too.
FP: Ok, say a few words, or many words, about the idea of the Apocalypse, or end of days, and why you think it is a very dangerous preachment.
Hitchens: In "God Is Not Great" I do my best to say why I think that eschatology is unwholesome, and why I think that the obsession with the "end times" is one of the creepiest aspects of the religious mentality. (Look at the poor Iranians today, bullied by a scrofulous despotism into hymning the arrival of a "Twelfth Imam" who has no more validity than the Tooth Fairy, and who lacks even the charm - and even the utility - of a nice tale for children.)
We already have a good picture of the way that the world will end: the heat-death of the universe. Through telescopes, we can already see this happening to countless other stars. This is awe-inspiring enough for anybody, and far more impressive than any Book of Revelation. It seems to me to be merely contemptible and solipsistic to contemplate such overwhelming reality, and then to mutter foolishness about an exception perhaps being made in our own case.
FP: Surely you have considered that God may not fall into any of the paradigms that you have forced him within the structures of your own thinking and understanding? Our human understanding may be a bit limited in terms of understanding God and his ways, no? After all, if we understood God, then he wouldn’t be God. And if God revealed himself, then we wouldn’t be free.
Surely, Mr. Hitchens, you recognize that you yourself, as all human beings, may not understand fully something about an existence that a higher power has created, no?
In other words, can you concede that perhaps human reason and the human mind might not be enough to completely understand, let alone serve as grounds to reject, the reality of God’s existence and the reality of his creation?
In another sense: do you recognize that your own rejection of the possibility of God’s existence is completely independent of the fact that God exists?
Hitchens: Well, you actually re-state part of the case that I make in "God Is Not Great". Given the impossibility of disproving god's existence, one must also admit the impossibility of proving it. But religion, which does claim to possess proofs of revelation, proposes to go further, and to state that one can actually know god's mind and interpret his instructions (about diet, say, or sexual conduct, or Iranian foreign policy). Thus, given the impossibility of "knowing", the first people to eliminate from the argument are those who are vain enough to claim to "know".
I do not think that my non-conviction and the faith of the godly are on all fours: all man-made arguments for the existence of a deity have actually been examined and exploded (see Victor Stenger's excellent recent work: "God: The Failed Hypothesis"). The Einsteinian pantheist concession, which allows that there may well be more to the wonder of the universe than we think (or even than we can think) explicitly repudiates the idea of a personal god, or a force that responds to human demands or intervenes in human affairs. It thus leaves religion behind, in the infancy of our species.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not wish for a benign celestial dictatorship anyway. Nor do I attribute my presence here to a divine plan instead of the laws and workings of biology. Above all, though, I refuse to submit to dictates from other mere mammals, who claim to know what they cannot know and who seem principally interested in wielding power in the here and now.
One last point if I may: a question I meant to pose earlier. Can you, or any of the readers of FP, give an instance of a morally right action, or morally rounded statement, taken or made by a religious person, that could not have been performed or uttered by a non-religious one?
FP: Your point is a strong one. Yes, a non-believer can be as equally moral as a religious person and a person can be moral without being religious.
There remains the question of where the notion of “morality” comes from that the non-religious person may engage in. Isn't it only because of religion that morality exists in the first place? If there is no God, and if there is no belief in God, then does morality even have any meaning?
But perhaps these questions are just a reflection of my own personal faith.
In any case, our time is almost up my friend.
Christopher Hitchens, thank you kindly for joining us. Your book is a valuable intellectual gift.
It is appreciated that you expose the savagery that has been perpetrated in the name of religion and that you stand up for the victims – many of whom have been forced into invisibility by those who seek to enforce historical amnesia on this phenomenon. As you point out, when Hasidic fundamentalist mohels (appointed circumcisers) put baby boys' penises into their mouths and give these babies genital herpes -- and then, in some cases, cause death to these babies (pp.49-50), and nothing is done or said about it, something seems, well, a little bit wrong. As you note, if any citizen did such a thing to a baby outside of religious window dressing, he would immediately and legitimately be seen as evil and be charged and prosecuted by the law. But for some reason, when it comes to grotesque abuses such as these that prevail in many quarters of the earth’s religions, if the perpetrator acts in the name of religion then the abuse is considered to be everything but what it is – and no cops show up and no prison sentences are dished out.
So thank you, Mr. Hitchens, for standing up for the victims.
In this light, and perhaps to answer your last question in a round-about-way, your anti-religious book is, on several levels, a powerful moral and humanitarian statement.
And I say this as a believer in God.
Thanks for joining us sir.
It was an honor and privilege to speak with you.
Hitchens: Thank you again for the hospitality of your pages.