Author Christopher Hitchens discusses his book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” as a part of the Authors@Google series. This event took place on August 16, 2007 at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. Here is the full transcript of the event…
Introducing Speaker: Hi everyone. Welcome to today’s Authors@Google event. After the talk, we’re going to have a Q&A session, and I’d like to remind everyone to please use the microphone in the middle of the room, if you have questions. It’s my pleasure to introduce Christopher Hitchens.
Mr. Hitchens was born in England, and educated at Oxford. In 1981, he migrated to the US, and recently, became a US citizen. He is the author of a number of notable books including Why Orwell Matters and Letters to a Young Contrarian. As one of our most notable public intellectuals, he has been a columnist at Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate and Free Inquiry, and taught at the New School, UC Berkeley, and the University of Pittsburgh. In his new book, God Is Not Great, he lines up the case against religion which he spent a lifetime developing with anger, humor and a formidable style of argument that defines all of Mr. Hitchens’s work.
About the book, Michael Kinsley wrote in the New York Times, “Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers by writing a serious and deeply-thought book, totally consistent with his beliefs of the lifetime. And God should be flattered; unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult”. Ever contrarian, and always eloquent, he is here today to discuss the book, take your questions, and take on anyone who dares to challenge him to a debate. He’ll be signing books afterwards. And, with that, please join me in welcoming Christopher Hitchens to Google.
Christopher Hitchens – Author
Thank you, darling. Sweet. Well, thank you so much for that suspiciously grudging introduction. And thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for coming. I understand we’ve only got the balance of an hour together so, I’ll try and break the rule of a lifetime and be terse.
I think I’ll put it like this. It’s true that publishers sometimes want to put a catchy or suggestive or challenging title, subtitle on a book. And so, when we hit upon or they hit upon, well, how religion poisons and why religion poisons everything, I knew what would happen, people would come up to me, they’d say, you mean absolutely everything, you mean the whole thing? They’d take me literally.
I thought, well, all right. One of the things you have to do in life as an author is live up to your damn subtitle. So, today, I’d defend the subtitle because I think the title probably, when it came to me in the shower, I realized, it pretty much does speak for itself. Unlike that sign outside Little Rock airport, huge — we had a black sign that you see from the airport that says, just “Jesus,” a word I have used myself, and a name I know but putting it like that seems to say both too much and too little, you know what I mean?
Well, here’s how religion has this effect, in my opinion: It is derived from the childhood of our species, from the bawling, fearful period of infancy. It comes from the time when we did not know that we lived on an orb. We thought we lived on a disc. And we did not know that we went around the sun or that the sky was not a dome, when we didn’t know that there was a germ theory to explain disease, and innumerable theories for the explanation of things like famine. It comes from a time when we had no good answers, but because we are pattern-seeking animals, a good thing about us, and because we will prefer even a conspiracy theory or junk theory to no theory at all, a bad thing about us.
This is and was our first attempt of philosophy, just as in some ways, it was our first attempt at science, and it was all founded on and remains founded on a complete misapprehension about the origins, first of the universe, and, second, about human nature. We now know a great deal about the origins of the universe, and a great deal about our own nature. I just had my DNA sequenced by National Geographic. You should all by the way get this done. It’s incredibly important to find out how racism and creationism would be abolished by this extraordinary scientific breakthrough, how you can find out your kinship with all your fellow creatures originating in Africa; but also, your kinship with other forms of life including not just animal but plant, and you get an idea of how you are part of nature, and how that’s wonderful enough. And we know from Stephen Hawking and from any others, Steven Weinberg and many other great physicists, an enormous amount now about what Professor Weinberg’s brilliant book calls The First Three Minutes, the concept of the Big Bang.
And we can be assured as we could probably need be that neither this enormous explosion that set the universe in motion, which is still moving away from us in a great rate nor this amazingly complex billion dollar–billion year period of evolution– we can be pretty certain it was not designed so that you and I could be meeting in this room. We are not the objects of either of these plans. These plans don’t know we’re here. I’m sorry to say, wouldn’t know or care if we stopped being here. We have to face this alone with the equipment, intellectual and moral, that we’ve been given, or that we’ve acquired or that is innate to us.
And here’s another way in which religion poisons matters. It begins by saying, well, why don’t we lie to ourselves instead, why don’t we pretend that we’re not going to die, or that an exception to be made at least in our own case if we make the right propitiations or the right moves. Why do we not pretend that the things like modern diseases which we can sequence now, sequence the genes of, like AIDS, are the punishment for wickedness and fornication? Why don’t we keep fooling ourselves that there is a divine superintendent of all this because it would abolish the feeling of loneliness and possibly even irrelevance that we might otherwise –in other words, why don’t we surrender to wish thinking? That poisons everything, in my opinion. Right away, it attacks the very basic integrity that we need to conduct the scrupulous inquiries, investigations, experiments, interrogations of evidence that we need to survive, and to prosper and to grow.
And it’s no coincidence, no accident that almost every scientific advance has been made in the teeth of religious opposition of one form or another that says we shouldn’t be tampering with God’s design. I suppose the most recent and most dangerous one of these is the attempt to limit stem cell research. But everyone could probably think of all other forms of scientific research and inquiry, especially medical that had led to religious persecution, in reprisal.
Thirdly, it’s an attack, I think, on what’s also very important to us, our innate morality. If there’s one point that I get made more than another to me when I go and debate religious people, it’s this: They say, where would your morals come from if there was no God? It’s actually –it’s a question that’s posed in Dostoyevsky’s wonderful novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers says –Snelyakov, actually, the wicked one, says it. If God is dead, isn’t everything permitted, isn’t everything permissible? Where would our ethics be if there was no superintending duty? This, again, seems to me a very profound insult to us in our very deepest nature and character. It is not the case, I submit to you, that we do not set about butchering and raping and thieving from each other right now only because we’re afraid of a divine punishment or because we’re looking for a divine reward. It’s an extraordinarily base and insulting thing to say to people.
On my mother’s side, some of my ancestry is Jewish. I don’t happen to believe the story of Moses and Egypt or the exile or the wandering and the Sinai. And in fact, now even Israeli archaeology has shown that there isn’t a word of truth to that story or really any of the others; but take it to be true. Am I expected to believe my mother’s ancestors got all the way to Mount Sinai, quite a trek, under the impression until they got there that rape, murder, perjury, and theft were okay, only to be told when they got to the foot of Mount Sinai, bad news, none of these things are kosher at all. They’re all forbidden. I don’t think so.
I think, I think we can –actually, I have a better explanation ever since –superior as well as better –that no one would have been able to get as far as Mount Sinai or any other mountain or in any other direction unless they had known that human solidarity demands that we look upon each other as brothers and sisters, and that we forbid activities such as murder, rape, perjury, and theft. This is innate in us. If those activities are not innate, the sociopaths who don’t understand the needs of anyone but themselves and the psychopaths who positively take pleasure in breaking these rules, well, all we can say is, according to one theory, they are also made in the image of God which makes the image of God question rather problematic, does it not or that they can be explained by a further and better research and have to be restrained and disciplined meanwhile, but in no sense here is religion a help where it came to help most which is to our morality, to our ethics.
Finally, I would say –not finally because I’m finished here, I’m not quite done. Don’t relax. Everyone has got to drink, something to eat, but on the poison question, I think there’s the real temptation of something very poisonous to human society and human relations which is the fear of freedom, the wish to be slaves, the wish to be told what to do.
Now, just as we all like to think and we live under written documents and proclamations that encourage us to think that it is our birth right and our most precious need to be free, to be liberated, to be untrammeled. So we also knew that unfortunately the innate in people is the servile, is the wish to be told what to do, is the adoration for strong and brutal and cruel leaders, that this other baser element of the human makeup has to be accounted for and it gives us a great deal of trouble around the world as we speak.
Religion, in my view, is a reification, a distillation of this wish to be a serf, to be a slave. Ask yourself if you really wish it was true that there was a celestial dictatorship that watched over you from the moment you were born, actually the moment you were conceived, all through life, night and day, knew your thoughts, waking and sleeping, could in fact convict you of thought crime, the absolute –the absolute definition of a dictatorship, can convict you for what you think or what you privately want, what you’re talking about to yourself, that admonishes you like this under permanent surveillance, control and supervision and doesn’t even let go of you when you’re dead because that’s when the real fun begins.
Now, my question is this — my question is this, who wishes that that were true? Who wants to live the life of a serf in a celestial North Korea? I’ve been to North Korea. I’m one of the very few writers who has. I’m indeed the only writer who’s been to all three axis of evil countries, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. And I can tell you North Korea is the most religious state I’ve ever been to. I used to wonder when I was a kid, what would it be like praising God and thanking him all day and all night? Well, now I know because North Korea is a completely worshipful state. It’s set up only to do that, for adoration and it’s only one short of a trinity. They have a father and the son, as you know, the Dear Leader and the Great Leader. The father is still the president of the country. He’s been dead for 15 years, but Kim Jong-il, the little one, is only the head of the party and the Army. His father is still the president, head of the state. So you have in North Korea what you might call a necrocracy or what I also –I called them mausolocracy, thanatocracy. One –just one short of a trinity; father, son, maybe no holy ghost, but they do say that when the birth of the younger one took place, the birds of Korea sang in Korean to mark the occasion. This I’ve checked. It did not happen. Take my word for it. It didn’t occur and I suppose I should add they don’t threaten to follow you after you’re dead. You can leave North Korea. You can get out of their hell and their paradise by dying.
To the Christian and Muslim one, you cannot. This is the wish to be a slave. And in my point of view, it’s poisonous of human relations. Now, I’ve really babbled for nearly twenty minutes. I’ll be quick. It is argued, well, some religious people have done great things and have been motivated to do so by their faith; the most cited case in point I have found is that of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I know I don’t need to explain to you about.
Two quick things on that: First, he was a minister. He did preach the Book of Exodus, the exile of an enslaved and oppressed people as his metaphor. But if he really meant it, he would have said that the oppressed people, as the Book of Exodus finds them doing, were entitled to kill anyone who stood on their way and take their land and their property, enslave their women or kill their children, and commit genocide, rape, ethnic cleansing and forcible theft of land. That’s what Exodus described as happening — the full destruction of the tribes. It’s very fortunate that Dr. King only the meant the Bible at the most to be used as a metaphor and after all he was using the only book that he could be sure his audience has ever already read. That’s the first thing.
The second is, during his lifetime, he was attacked all the time for having too many secular and leftist non-believing friends, the people like famous black secularists like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph. These are the men that did organize the march on Washington; which leads me to my third observation which is this: It’s a challenge I made now in debates with rabbis, with priests of all Christian stripes, with imams. Once –I know this sounds like an opening of a joke about some bar, but once also with a Buddhist nun in Miami.
I asked them all. Here is my — here is my challenge. You have to name me an ethical statement that was made or a moral action that was performed by a religious person in the name of faith that could not have been made as an action or uttered as a statement by non — a person not of faith, a person of no faith. You have to do that. Not so far and I’ve dealt at quite a high level with the religious, no takers. No one has been able to find me that. That being the case, we’re entitled to say, I think, that religious faith serve as the requirements whereas if I was to ask anyone in this room, think of a wicked thing said or an evil thing done by a person of faith in the name of faith, no one would have a second of hesitation in thinking of one, would they? It’s interesting to realize how true that is and how much true it’s getting.
Does anyone ever listen to Dennis Prager’s Show? He’s a slightly loopy Christian broadcaster, religious broadcaster, I should say. He’s more Jewish than Christian — Judaic-Christian broadcaster who quite often rather generously has me on the show. And he asked me a question the other day; he had a challenge of his own. He said, “You are to imagine that you’re in a town late at night where you have never been before, and you have no friends and it’s getting dark. And through the darkness, you see coming towards you a group of men, let’s say ten. Do you feel better or worse if you know that they’re just coming from a prayer meeting?” This is Mr. Prager’s question to me.
I said, “Well, Mr. Prager, without leaving you, from just without quitting the letter B, I can tell you I’ve had that experience in Belfast, in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Bombay, in Bosnia, and in Bethlehem. And if you see anyone coming from a religious gathering, in any of those places, you know exactly how fast you need to run. And no one has to explain to you why and I haven’t had to waste any time telling you, have I, ladies and gentlemen?
So I submit to you that it is those who are people of faith who have the explaining to do, who have the justifying to do if this is indeed the case. If they can’t account for anything about the origin of our cosmos or our species, if they say that without them, we’d be without morals and make us seem as if we are merely animals without faith, if further, everybody can name an instance where religion has made people actually behave worse to one another and act as a retardant upon the advances of knowledge and science and information, I submit that the case to be made is theirs rather than mine. We have a better tradition. We’re not just arid secularists and materialists, we on the atheist side. We can point, through the Hubble telescope, the fantastic, awe-inspiring majestic pictures that are being taken now of the outer limits of our universe, and who’s going to turn away from those pictures and start gaping again at the burning bush? We have smaller microscopes that can examine for us the miracles of the interior of the double helix and the sheer beauty of that. The natural world is wonderful enough, more wonderful than anything conjured by the fools who believe in astrology or the supernatural.
And we have a better tradition politically against the popes and the imams and the witch doctors and the divine right of kings and the whole long tradition of civic repression combined with religion that’s known as theocracy. We have created in the United States, the only country in the history of the world, written on founding documents testable, organized, works in progress based on the theory of human liberation and the only constitution in the history of world that says that there shall be a separation between the church and the state. God is never mentioned in the United States Constitution except in order to limit religion and keep it out of politics and put it under legal control. This achievement was described by President Jefferson whose biographer, I am in a small way, to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut in a letter after they reasoned him for fear of persecution. By the way, who do you think Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut were afraid of being persecuted by? Anyone knows?
Male Audience: The Methodists?
Christopher Hitchens: No, the Congregationalists of Danbury, Connecticut. People forget what it used to be like, see how the Christians loved each other, how they tried to repeat the European passion of one religious sect repressing and torturing another one. And as you probably know, the president wrote back and said, “No, you may be assured that there will ever be in this country a wall of separation between the church and the state.” So I have a new slogan and I’m taking it on tour and I invite you to join me in it and it goes like this, “Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.” Okay, thank you very much for coming. And I’m all yours. And that was 25 minutes; I hope that’s fair. And I’ll point out the questions if you like because I don’t think anyone thinks that I’ve planted my immediate family in this hole, but, Carol, stay out of it. Bring it on.
Carol: Thank you for coming to Google.
Christopher Hitchens: It’s my honor.
Carol: So you make it sound really, really simple. I mean you have explanations for everything.
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah.
Carol: And I agree with a lot of your arguments and, you know, I lived in, like, a socialist country. I mean, I come from Croatia so I empathize with a little bit of when you say like the axis of evil and especially North Korea being a perfect theocracy, I can relate to that. But I don’t understand why do you say that these people really want to be enslaved, if you could explain this to me. I mean, I think there’s really a system, you know, like set up by a minority which is really a brutal system and I don’t understand about the part, like, you know, like this is something that these people want so…
Christopher Hitchens: Did you say you were Croatian?
Carol: Yes, yes.
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah. Well, then you –then I would be upset if you thought I meant that these man-made regimes were there because people wanted them to be, no. That’s not what I meant at all about North Korea. Particularly, these have been riveted onto people. I mean, North Korea is a hermetic place unfortunately in that it has ocean on either side of it; the Demilitarized Zone which is several miles wide on the south and Russia and China on the north. So, you have a place where you can horribly conduct an experiment on human beings, essentially. You can isolate them totally. The North Korean State was set up in the same year that Orwell published 1984. And you almost think that somebody gave Kim Il-sung a copy of 1984 in Korean and said, “Do you think we could make this fly?” And he said, “Well, I can’t be sure. We sure can give it the old college try.” Because that’s how it feels there. I went there, I thought, I’ve had his experience–I’ll just digress for a second. I’ve had this experience twice in my life.
Journalists hate cliché. I know it doesn’t always seem like that when you read the papers, but we try and avoid them. I went to Prague once under the old days of the communist regime. I thought whatever happens to me here, I’m not going to mention Franz Kafka in my essay. I’m going to be the first journalist not to do it. I went to a meeting of the opposition underground, somebody betrayed us because the secret police came in and, suddenly, wham like just broke down the door, dogs, torches, rubber truncheons. They slammed me against the wall, you’re under arrest. Well, I demand to see the British ambassador. Blah, blah, you’re under arrest. What’s the charge? We don’t have to tell you that. I thought, fuck, I’ve got to mention Kafka after all. They make you do it. Well, I –that’s actually what a cliché is. That’s –communism is a cliché in itself.
The same in North Korea; I thought I don’t want to mention Orwell; I don’t want to mention Orwell; have not have to mention. There’s no — there’s no other stand of comparison. No, what I meant about the fear of freedom was this: Many, many people don’t of course want to live under a hellish starvation regime of gulag type, like that. But they, they quite like being told what to do. They don’t want to be told that life doesn’t — the world doesn’t owe them a living and that they’re on their own and they– they quite like it and repeatedly vote for parties and, sometimes, leaders who promise to provide everything as long as they’ll give up just a little bit of freedom, just a little bit. In the tradeoff, you’ll get more security and more welfare. It’s a temptation. In some cases, it takes an extreme form, and I’m very impressed by how often when I debate with the religious people, they will tell me that they’ve –they gravitate towards faith because they want someone to, if you like, to look after them. The whole idea of a heavenly father, for example, is built up on this. The –the old joke says some say God is dead, some say God is dad, you figure.
Then there are people who –well, Islam for example, the word means, the word Islam means surrender, prostration. You give everything to God. Everything is in his hands. This is implicit in the Qur’an. That’s what I mean. But I think what’s innate in most people is the feeling that they quite like someone to take care of them all of the time so it can be hard to argue with them that there is no such person.
Carol: I understand better now but…
Christopher Hitchens: Okay.
Carol: You see, I –just to follow up a little bit. So is there a possibility there to say that then some people are more freedom-loving than others and is this some sort of, you know, like — I wouldn’t call it racism but, you know, like, differentiating people by their love towards freedom and all that?
Christopher Hitchens: No, I’m certain that the same feelings are innate in all people. And one day, there will be a North Korean edition of 1984, and it will be a huge bestseller there. I am as sure of that as I can be of anything. Though, at the moment, it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone in North Korea who’s even allowed to consider the concept of political liberty. It will come because it is innate. I have no doubt about that.
Carol: To follow up to on this fear of freedom and this is an innate idea, sorry to beat that horse, but what do you –what do you think would possibly replace this? I also think that there are some –I mean it’s obviously much easier to say my life is out of my control and these events are out of my control so, you know, I’m going to thank God for the good things and, you know, hate the devil for the bad things, whatever. So, like, you know, from Plato to Nietzsche to Socrates –or Descartes have said it’s difficult to choose the life where you’re actually deciding and making choices for yourself and taking responsibility and appreciating the fact that the world doesn’t care about your existence and then doing what you need to do with that, and it is difficult. How do we, you know, well — how could we possibly imagine a world where everybody buys into that idea and how do we — where would we go like, where would that structure that some people feel they can’t do without, where would they get that from? I guess what would – what would religion be replaced by so to fulfill this natural need?
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah. Well, I would say that emancipating ourselves from religion and from the combined sort of solipsism and masochism, this is what I was trying to say to the comrade here a moment ago. Religion says to you, remember, the monotheistic ones, you’re a miserable sinner, your sin is original, you can’t escape it, you’re born as a wretch, you’re made out of dust or according to the Qur’an, a clot of blood, you’re a worm, you’re nothing, you know, but a piece of gunk basically. But — and you got to work really hard to get away from the terrible punishment that awaits you for that.
So total abnegation, but there’s also good news. The universe is designed with you in mind, and God has a plan for you personally. So just when the person thinks they can’t take anymore abuse –it’s like being inducted into a cult. Just where the person thinks they can’t take anymore humiliation, they’re told, oh, but father loves you and he wants you to join our group. That’s not good for people. You’d be better off without it. So would everyone you know, so it’s not a matter of what we would put in its place, we wouldn’t. We’d be emancipated from that kind of sadomasochism. That’s a good thing to start off with.
Second, we have the wonders and beauty of science to study. We have instead of ancient texts that are full of lies and myths, we have increasingly a wonderful world literature that’s available to anybody who can read even a little — most recently, I would cite you, because yesterday was the birthday of India, happy birthday by the way to all Indians here. And Pakistanis, though if you insist, I think the partition was a huge mistake. There’s a — and religious partition is the worst kind, and it’s going to lead one day to a thermonuclear war so – I didn’t have time to go into that but maybe someone will ask me. There’s incredible literature in English written by Indians. It’s sort of a sub-branch–but I shouldn’t even say sub; I mean a branch–a new branch of English writing by Indians in English. It’s becoming a great part of world literature. There’s all this extraordinary excitement. And people say no, no, no, you should –as Thomas Aquinas said, a man of one book, you know, you should be reading a bible, you don’t really need anything else, they’re destroying libraries in the Muslim world that could have any books that contradict the Qur’an, this is no way to live.
But having said all that, and said what the — and the consolations of philosophy too which aren’t that hard to study are very rewarding. And ethical and moral dilemmas that you get out of the study of literature, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, people of that kind, James Joyce. Still, it’s only a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. There are no guarantees and an atheist can be a nihilist, or a sadist, or a Stalinist, or a fascist, it’d be unlikely the last one but that’s possible. Okay. But we — there are no guarantees and in part that it’s the recognition of that, that’s the beginning of wisdom as well as I think the beginning of liberty.
Audience: One short and one longer one, I just want to be sure, I assume that you have read the “Captain Stormfield’s Journey To Heaven” by Mark Twain.
Christopher Hitchens: Sorry. Yes, I’ve read a lot of Mr. Clemens on religion.
Audience: Yes. That seemed a sort of a definitive work on the hierarchy structure of a more standard religion.
Christopher Hitchens: Yes. By the way, you can’t read too much Twain, ladies and gentlemen, on the subject. But now all of his stuff is available. There are websites on Mark Twain and religion. It used to be really hard to get his writings on religion even 10 years ago. Sorry.
Audience: And my longer question which hopefully won’t choke you up. Actually, I have several friends who are very well-educated, in some cases in the sciences, who became religious late in life. They have been atheist or agnostic, and then just decided they were feeling something and became religious. Do you have anything to say on that sort of grounds or why that might be occurring?
Christopher Hitchens: Yes. I suppose I could speculate, but that’s all I would be doing. I think for some people, the Hubble View, say, does have the opposite effect from the one it has on me. It makes people feel, well, then, whoever designed this must be even more amazing than I thought. And that’s–there are attempts made by creationists now to say that. Instead of saying, “No, Darwin was wrong. God made all this stuff.” They now say, “Well, okay, there was evolution, but God did that, too.” So as you may know arguments that explain everything, explain nothing. That’s a definite principle I think of underlying full cognition.
If they can bend their argument so it can comprehend everything, comprise everything then it isn’t an argument. But I think that we are certainly made in such a way to be worshipfully inclined, shall we say. That tendency is certainly within us. And when people think that there’s something awe inspiring, what they feel is awe. And then what they feel is well, maybe there’s some majesty I should be acknowledging here, though that isn’t at all a logical step. By the way, do you know about “awe?”
Audience: In what sense?
Christopher Hitchens: John Wayne played the Roman centurion in one of the films about the crucifixion? And there’s a certain point the rain has to come down hard, and there’s thunder and lightning and the veil of the temple splits and so on. And John Wayne standing as a centurion is supposed to say, “Truly, this was the son of God.” So he does this. I forget who the director was–I think it’s Houston. And cue rain, thunder and lightning, so Wayne stands there stoically, and utters, “Truly, this was the son of God.” And the director’s, “John, that was great. That was terrific. I just wonder if we could have it with a little more awe.” So they cued again the rain, thunder, the veil of the temple splits into Wayne, earthquakes, you know. It’s all happening and Wayne says, “Aw, truly, this was the son of God.”
Audience: So this is a kind of a follow-up on Tom’s question. I have a buddy who styles himself as a kind of an allegorical pagan. And he’s had a lot of angry criticisms of religion, many of which echo yours. But at the same time he feels in himself a kind of a biological need to be part of a circle of believers in a community which he feels helps his rather fragile emotional demeanor. He goes through, you know, depression and things like that, and he finds that belief. So what he’d done is try to find what he feels as the least obnoxious religion he could find and then not take it too seriously. What would you say to such a person?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, that used to be called the Church of England –or, the Unitarians, about whom Bertrand Russell said, “The great thing about them is they believe in one god maximum.” Peter DeVries is very good on this. He says people used to be a pagan and polytheist and believe in multiple gods, and then they started believing in one god and they’re going nearer the true figure all the time. This is progress.
Audience: On an article, I believe it was that I read, you seemed reluctant to endorse if not critical of Richard Dawkins’s attempt to sort of organize the atheists under the title of Brights.
Christopher Hitchens: Yes.
Audience: And I believe that your comment was that we infidels need no such machinery of reinforcement. My question is, if like-minded people do not organize, especially if those whose ideals we oppose are more organized, how can we attempt to — kind of steer our society the way that we would like it to go?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I was to have said this to the previous question. I mean, I’m in some ways the wrong person to ask these questions. I’m no longer a joiner up of groups. I don’t feel the belonging need anymore. I used to when I was younger and more left than I am now feel that the need to be involved in an organized way. Now I don’t, and I think I probably have more influence as an individual than I ever did as a cogwheel in a so-called party. A point for anyone to ponder actually who was asked have they ever considered registering independent, for example. People may fight harder for your vote if you don’t give it away in advance.
Separate question, and it’s very important to me that I don’t belong to a church. People who believe as I believe don’t need to get together all the time and remind ourselves what we believe, reinforce it, ram it home in case we forget the incredible propositions that, you know, we’re singing and all those kind of things. You just recognize a fellow free-thinker when you meet one. That should be enough. And in any country or any language as well. There will be in Washington in October the big gathering where Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and myself and many others are going to be — Victor Stinger. Because there has been an extraordinary vogue of successful books on this subject now, and I think there’s a change in the Zeitgeist going on about religion. And let me just say this, if that Zeitgeist has been brought about, the change has been brought about in that Zeitgeist, it hasn’t been by any organization. It’s by a group of like-minded people writing their hearts out and refusing to be intimidated by religious bullying. Or, to allow religious nonsense to be taught in the schools, for example, in place of science. Or to allow euphemisms to be spread about the behavior of the parties of god in Iraq or elsewhere. That’s what created it, not an organization but what you might call an intellectual tendency. I think that’s fine. I think it’s encouraging.
Audience: Hi. A few of the things that you said don’t really seem consistent with our experience in the United States. Two things in particular: one is that you said, you know, once people have Hubble telescopes and microscopes, the burning bush is not as interesting. And the other thing you said is that, religion kind of fits into innate human nature for being told what to do or not having as much freedom. Well, in the United States, we have the most advanced, wealthy, most powerful nation in probably the history of the world, and you have probably the most freedom-loving, you know, almost inventive –not inventing but really espousing the philosophy of freedom and individuality and trying to propagate that throughout the world. Yet, you also have the most religious nation. Well, it’s true. I mean, you can argue with the methods but I mean, there’s no question that like we are trying to promote democracy. And yet you have, yeah, the most religious nation. You have like people going to church is probably an all-time high. Religious people affect who our leaders are, you know, to a great degree. So how do you explain like that contradiction?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I don’t think it’s a contradiction because religious, the section of the constitution means you can have religious pluralism. Now for example where I come from, originally, you can tell I was born in England. The head of the church is the head of the state and the head of the armed forces. It’s an official church and you have to pay for it and whether you want to or not. And on the moment that her majesty, the Queen, expires, the head of the Church of England will become a bat-eared half-Muslim with no taste in, for women as far as I can see, the lugubrious Prince Charles, who goes to classes on Islam and talks to plants and is a loon. That’s what you get for founding a church on the family values of Henry VIII.
In the United States, you can’t have any of that. That would be unconstitutional. You can belong to any church you want, the government has nothing to do with that. And people I think take a Toquevillian view, if you like, of the church. They go, many of them, to church for social reasons. Some of them for ethnic ones, some of them for charitable, some of them for community reasons as you might say. If you ask someone now — I’ve been doing this a lot recently. I have debated at every stop of my book tour. Okay, so said you are a Baptist minister, yes. Well, do you believe in John Calvin’s teaching on predestination and hell fire? Why do you want to know? Well, because you said you were a Baptist. Yeah, but I mean I’m a Southern Baptist, you know that kind.
Well, come one. They don’t love the question. They –or ask the Catholics if they really believe what their church teaches or what the Pope tells them. Of course they don’t for the most part. The fastest growing group of people in the country has been measured as being those of who have no belief or who are atheists. By far the fastest growing, it’s doubled in the last ten years. People are evidently lying to the opinion polls, that there are not enough churches in the country; there are plenty of them. They’re not enough to take all the people who say that they go to them, just couldn’t be done, couldn’t fit them in. I don’t think that people who have doubts about religion are going to tell them to opinion pollsters who call them up at dinner time. They will say, yes, I am a Methodist or whatever it is, they’re not going say I sometimes wonder if John Wesley was really the man. Not when the multiple choice boxes are being gone through. So, but unfortunately, I mean, there are people who think that that’s the way to go politically.
The president for example thinks that to say someone is person of faith is axiomatically to confer a compliment on them. And if you remember, he did it to Vladimir Putin, KGB goon and hood, and increasingly evidently a very dangerous man to have in charge in Russia. President meets and says right away, “Right away, well, I could tell by looking into his eyes and seeing he was wearing his grandmother’s crucifix, that he was just the chap for me.” Now, in a strong field, I think that’s the stupidest thing the president has yet said. And he must, I think, occasionally regret it. And I got, tried to get a research to this one to find out just, I just need to know something, has Vladimir Putin ever worn his grandmother’s crucifix since? Had he ever been seen wearing it before? Or did he just think this should be enough for the president of the United States? Because if so, it would show that religion was not just metaphysically incorrect, but as I have I believe said, a danger and a poison to all of us. If our republic can be—and its president can be pushed over, like that, like someone offering garlic to a vampire, then we really are in trouble.
Audience: Just a follow-up, though, it just sounds like you would have almost no religion in the U.S. if you —if it’s true that you were saying, that once you became an advanced scientific society, you know, you’d lose interest in religion which is not the case.
Christopher Hitchens: All right. I’d say a bit more, I mean, take the case of the so-called “intelligent design school” they want at least equal time, they used to want to ban evolution, now they want equal time in schools. So, they brought with their Discovery Institute friends from Washington, moves on school boards and courts in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and the most conservative County of Pennsylvania around the town of Dover. And they have been humiliated in each case. And this is in Kansas, in Texas, in Oklahoma and in the most reactionary part of Pennsylvania. Thrown off the school board by the electorate and thrown out of court as flat out unconstitutional by the judges, in all cases, Reagan Republican appointees. And I don’t know what they’re going to do next, these rednecks, I don’t know what they’re going to do. But, I know why it doesn’t work, and why it’s not going to work, because there may be many parents in Kansas who say, “Well, I personally think that God made the rocks and so on and only made them 6,000 years ago.” But they don’t want their children taught that in school.
They don’t want to come from a state where they get laughed at when they say where they’re from. Oh you’re from Kansas, that’s the place where… they don’t like that. It’s the same, it was the same with the confederate flag issue, quite apart from the racism. A lot of people who didn’t want to come from a state that had a confederate battle flag on its – Among other things people won’t have their conventions in your state and you’ll suffer for that too. You’ll get laughed at when you travel, they don’t want this. And nor should they have to put up with it because of a handful of crackpots.
So, no, I don’t say there aren’t a lot of devout people in this country and I don’t say that science just negates religion. But I say that the influence of religion as opposed to scientific rationalism is hugely overestimated, yeah. Shouldn’t — shouldn’t impress people to the point where they feel it must – can’t be opposed.
Audience: Thank you for coming. I think you already answered one of my questions regarding organizing a larger effort. So separate from that I want to get just some comments and thoughts based upon idea of if there is going to be an independent movement whether at the Atheist or Anti-theist movement whether you’re part of it or not, if you have any suggestions for the average person not – may not have say a publishing company or a production company, but does have the Internet, you know, does have their own thoughts… And keyboard in front of them, what they can do to either give resources to other people or to actually express their thoughts in ways that you find to actually be, you know, exceptional.
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, my friend, Rich Dawkins actually at the end of his book, The God Delusion, does have a list which you can look up, and his is an excellent book, I should say, of websites where so to say, help is available. Well, there’s one for example, there is a very important one of called, “Leaving Islam,” is about people want to get out and are afraid or are being intimidated, ways of actually doing it and finding contact with people who feel the same way. Very serious because there are quite a lot of our fellow citizens now who don’t feel that they do have religious freedom because they are imprisoned in a religion that can kill them for even considering changing their minds about it, this is no small matter. But I tell you what I would do, I would become a subscriber to a magazine called Free Inquiry which is published out of Amherst, New York, it’s every month I think, a very, very good rationalist and skeptical magazine which has itself a lot of local activities that you can look up.
And then, there’s another magazine called Skeptical Inquiry, published from nearer here, maybe more appeal to people of a scientific or technical bent which does things likes they expose frauds that are on TV claiming to be able to put you in touch with your relatives, or divine water or all these kinds of nutbags that are often featured on primetime shows. And puts you also in touch with the work the great magicians, Penn and Teller and James Randy, who again show that miracles are easy. And they can also show the fraudulence of anyone who tries to exploit them, a world of wonder awaits you. And these magazines will also show you and point out to the areas where resistance is needed, say to the continued attempt to teach nonsense in American schools, “Yes, children that concludes the biology period, and now get ready for your creation studies hour and after the astronomy class we will have the astrology class for equal time, and then the chemistry alchemy period.” t’s enough to make a cat laugh, isn’t it?
There are people think this is what should be done to stultify American children. So, you can meet up with other people could think that that’s a bad idea.
Audience: Yeah, two things, an observation and a concern. My first observation is that I think you share something in common with Jesus in that both of you have – seems to be attacking aspects of religion, but often in his case, he attacked specific religious leaders whereas you attack religion itself. And, I was…
Christopher Hitchens: No, our resemblances are often pointed out.
Audience: I’m sad to hear, I thought for sure I’d be the first. And secondly, the bit of concern, if we start going more and more toward Atheism, you mentioned some of the horrible things that happened in the name of religion, but I look at one of the greatest genocides or at least mass murders ever, was by the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin when in the name of among other things Atheism, they killed an enormously large number of their own people. And what do you think would prevent that from happening if indeed you were successful?
Christopher Hitchens: I have a chapter on this in my book because it is a very frequently asked question, I think it’s also a very serious one, I have to condense the chapter if I may, but here’s the situation. Until 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, millions of Russians, millions and millions of them had for hundreds and hundreds of years been told that the head of the state, the Czar, was also the head of the church and was a little more than human, he was the little father of the people. He wasn’t quite divine. He was more like a saint than human. And he owned everything in the country and everything was due to him. That’s how a gigantic layer Russian society was inculcated with servile, fatalistic ideas.
If you are Josef Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business in the first place if you can’t realize this is a huge opportunity for you, you’ve inherited a population that’s servile and credulous and superstitious. Well, what does Stalin do? He sets up an inquisition. He has heresy hunts, trials of heretics, the Moscow trials. He proclaims miracles, Lysenko’s agriculture that was supposed to produce three harvests a year or whatever it was, the pseudo-biology that would feed everyone in a week. He says all thanks are due at all times to the leader and you must praise him at all times for his goodness and kindness. And incidentally, he always kept the Russian Orthodox Church on his side, it split. It split the church and some of them moved to New York and set up a rival. But the Russian Orthodox Church remained part of the regime, he was not so stupid as not to know he had to do that, just as Hitler and Mussolini made an even more aggressive deal with the Roman Catholic Church and with some of the Protestants.
And remember the other great axis of evil person of that time, the Emperor of Japan, was not just a religious person but actually a god. So Fascism, Communism and Stalinism and Nazism are nothing like as secular as some people think, and much more religious than most people know. But here’s what a fair test would be: find a society that’s adopted the teachings of Spinoza, Voltaire, Galileo, Einstein, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and gone down the pits as result of doing that into famine and war and dictatorship and torture and repression. That would be a fair test. That’s the test I’d like to — that’s the experiment I’d like to run. I don’t think that’s going to end up with a gulag.
Audience: Hi. Thank you for coming. More ladies asking questions would be awesome and please, I implore you to be really hilarious so we can prove Mr. Hitchens is wrong about why women cannot be funny.
Christopher Hitchens: I was wondering what you would – what you’ve done with your chicks here I must say.
Audience: We are a technology company. So, I’m not religious but just to play a little devil’s advocate, what do you say to studies that show that people who consistently go to church, who pray, who believe in God have, like, lower blood pressure and live longer lives, et cetera?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I’d say it wouldn’t — wouldn’t prove much. I mean, if it’s hard to prove — I’m not sure I would be able to trust the methodology but suppose it was true, the same could be said of being a Moonie for example. I mean, it is said that Louis Farrakhan’s racist crackpot Nation of Islam and its sectarian gang gets young men of drugs, for all I know it does, it may but that doesn’t recommend it to me. Nor does it prove a thing about its theology, if you see what I mean. Whereas I can absolutely tell you that of the suicide bombing population 100% are faith based. And I don’t think that that in itself disproves faith but I think it should make you skeptical of that kind of random sampling of the genital mutilation community the same can be said.
Audience: I have a lot of progressive religious friends who –I used to be pretty condescending towards religion but I feel like I’ve learned a lot from them and learned about their religious practice and what it means to them and as you stated earlier a lot of religious people don’t really believe all the tenets of what their faith says anyway. So, I feel like those friends of mine are looking for community and looking for a feeling of oneness with other people and with the universe and ultimately on a scientific level that bears out anyway because on like a quantum level everything is one and is the same. So, I feel like churches at least in this country provide the sense of community that I don’t think exists any other way in our culture. I don’t feel like I had that growing up and I feel like my friends that went to church they can go back to their church now and there are all of these adults that aside from their parents that were there to nurture them as they were growing up and then ask how they’re doing and I never had that. So, I’m jealous of that in a sense.
Christopher Hitchens: It takes a lot to make me cry but you… See me afterwards, I mean, the way it just–look actually it’s what I said about if there’s any who read, who read de Toqueville, in Democracy in America should –that’s what he said about communitarianism and religion. It’s very –it’s the reason why America is so religious but it’s a different form of religion. Ask yourself a related question, it’s amazing to me how many Americans change religion when they get married. You hear it all the time, you’ve heard it. I used to be Seventh Day Adventist but my wife was Congregationalist, now I go to the Congregationalists. It doesn’t matter the Seventh Day Adventist used to say, if you don’t stay with us you’re going straight to hell. Change very easily. Go to another church instead. Wouldn’t consider perhaps not going to one but it shows the — the depth of the strength of religious allegiance.
I also think that, well, it’s notorious about, say, Polish Catholics in Chicago or Greek Orthodox or many Jews, the church has been a means of transmitting and preserving an ethnic tradition as well. The solidarity in the face of often quiet bleak kinds of life, and now there’s even a phenomenon known as Churchianity. It’s expressed by the megachurches, the people who live half transient lives don’t have very stable employment or residence who are often moving around the country. On a Sunday they want to know where they can go take the old jalopy and be among friends, and these characters are waiting for them, believe me, to remove what few savings they do have left from them. Because that’s another indissoluble fact about American religion just as community and blood pressure may be involved. It has to be mentioned in the same breath as open fraud to an absolutely astonishing extent. I mean, the shake down community, the genital mutilation community, the suicide bombing community, the child abuse I would prefer to say child rape communities, all these are communities of faith, believe me.
Audience: Oh, it’s my turn?
Christopher Hitchens: What’s up?
Audience: Try to diverge a little from the immediate subjects. You expressed your regrets for this perverse impulse in the human spirit which seems to desire to be dominated, to prostrate itself before the mysterious altar of power. It occurs to me that the current government of this nation has in a calculated fashion, exploited this perverse desire and exploited the language which seems to inspire it or appeal to it. Now, I’m strongly opposed to a particular policy of this government which is the indefinite detention of so-called terrorist suspects in Cuba and in particular I dislike the way the government tries to justify this policy by using these very discourses of power and secrecy which come of a particular religious stamp. So I would like to ask and — not to be impertinent how you can square what you’ve said today with other comments you’ve made apparently in support of this very policy.
Christopher Hitchens: There’s no danger of you being impertinent so don’t worry about that. I’ve just returned from Guantanamo, when I say just I was there last month. It took me a long time to get down and haven’t yet written anything about it so you won’t know my views as I’m not sure that I know them in full myself, but about your question, I know what my views are about indefinite detention in principle. I didn’t see or must have missed any allusion that all made to religion, in the decision to declare them enemy combatants. You’re suggesting there was a religious justification for the detention policy?
Audience: Not a religious justification per se but in my opinion the Bush administration in its public deliveries often uses a language of power very much akin to that’s used by religious tyrants and demagogues down the centuries and this language comes up particularly strongly when justifying controversial actions such as Guantanamo Bay.
Christopher Hitchens: Well, again I think we have a disagreement, I mean the language they seem to use to me is the language of the secular language of emergency powers and special circumstances requiring extraordinary measures and that’s a very old argument especially in the United States, it goes back to President Lincoln’s attempt to suspend habeas corpus in the Civil War. It reminds me of that and not of any argument about or with theocracy.
Audience: Emergency powers and extraordinary rendition and other times like this to me rather smack of secrecy jargon at the same time used by preachers.
Christopher Hitchens: Or by secular despots. I just don’t think you’re quite carrying your point about the theological. If by all means if you want to discuss the question of civil liberties, let’s do so, but it’s a departure from the rubric. The Bush administration is not conducting a holy war in this respect. It is confronting a holy war, however. One thing you can’t miss about the inhabitants of Guantanamo is how faith based they are, and that’s part of the reason why we are presented with this problem. The difference seems to me to be the following, if you treat them as criminals, as some argue, then you can’t say really that you are fighting a war, then it’s only a law and order question.
If you say you’re fighting a war, then in what sense are these not enemy soldiers? If they are enemy soldiers, how can you try them as criminals? Why are you holding people as criminals and building a military tribunal, I visited the room where they’re going to have them tried, where they will be able to say, “Well, thanks for having me here and admitting that I am a soldier, when the whole point is that the Geneva Convention says that they’re not. So that’s bad enough to begin with and it’s a territory no government has yet had to step onto. But in addition, we’re apparently not allowed to do any of those things, nor are we allowed extraordinary rendition nor can we have return them to their countries of origin in case they get maltreated there by their own governments. Well, this leaves the —apparently only two alternatives. One is not to take any prisoners. And the other is to let everybody go and say we’ve got no right to hold you. And neither of these seems to be very attractive. This is as far as I’ve got now with my reasoning.
Audience: But do you not dislike the way that’s all of these actions might not be unconstitutional. They’re not justified in constitutional terms but in language such as extraordinary rendition, emergency powers.
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, I do dislike that very much, yes. I mean, no one’s ever been able to point out to me that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus helped to defeat the confederacy for example. And I certainly don’t think that the president has the right under the constitution to suspend habeas corpus. Only the Congress can do that. It doesn’t mean it can’t be suspended. The Congress has to do it, the president cannot. I’m rather a stickler for that kind of thing. Call me old fashioned if you will.
Audience: Well, I feel I’ve taken up a little too much time now.
Christopher Hitchens: A very welcome question, believe me.
Audience: I would posit that the Bush administration has restrained itself or needs to be restrained from using genuine religious language in the way it’s approached that so called war and terror and I believe the word crusade was used earlier in the campaign by President Bush, it’s not been used since. And we remember that the original name of the campaign was infinite justice. Another rejected piece of unfortunate language, obviously picked out by some careful PR person.
Audience: Hi. Thank you very much for coming. I was just having a question about something that many people have probably find to be a less serious issue but I’m curious about your thoughts on art, music and creativity and how those fit in with your other ideas, those were three things that formed communities that maybe we argued on faith, you know. The greatest composers throughout history always dedicating their work to God and things of that nature and I’m just curious how you view these things and beauty of these things to be similar to the beauty that you suggested you can find in nature or how you think that they might be more suited, more fitting in with religion. I’m just curious if you think that any would be devalued in this new system or any — with your ideas.
Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, we don’t know, of the extraordinary buildings, the great Gothic Cathedrals for example or the, even the Great Mosques of Andalusia. We don’t know if the architects who built them that they were themselves convinced that it was for the greater glory of God. We just know that at the time you couldn’t get a job as an architect if you didn’t affirm that. And certainly we know what would have happened to you if you said, “What God?” That would not just be the end of your career as an architect, so we don’t know that about… We don’t know the same about, even the devotional painters, we don’t know if they were believers, or the composers. Of the devotional poets, and I’m on stronger ground here as a literary critic, I know a bit more about it. People like John Donne or George Herbert, it would be very, very hard to fake writing that if you weren’t a believer. It would be extremely hard, where would you get your inspiration from? And my feeling is that it’s real devotional poetry and I personally couldn’t be without it. We’d be much poorer.
To stay with the literature if you don’t mind. The King James version of the bible, the King James translation, referred to in the New York Times recently as the St. James translation, is itself a great work of literature and one couldn’t be without it, if you don’t understand the beauty of that liturgy, there’s a lot of Shakespeare and of Milton and Blake you wouldn’t get, you wouldn’t know what was going on. So it’s part of literacy to know it. I once wrote a book about the Parthenon, very important building for western civilization, great deal to be learned from it and from, by its beauty and by its symmetry and by its extraordinary architecture and sculpture. But I no longer care about the culture of Pallas Athena and I don’t care about the mystical ceremonies, some of them involving animal sacrifice and possibly human, that were conducted on the road from Eleusis. And I don’t have to care about Athenian imperialism and what it did to the Greek colonies in the rest of the Mediterranean.
I can just appreciate the building and some — and know about the philosophical context and the plays of Sophocles and all the other things that were going on at the same time without any reference to their gods. So I propose that what culture largely means to us now is how to deal with civilizational art and great creativity in a post-supernatural era. In other words, how to keep all of that that’s of value without having to care about the culture of Pallas Athena for example or to be forced to bear in mind that say, St. Peter’s in Rome, actually not I think that impressive a building, was built by special set of indulgences, I mean that’s how the money for it was raised. We can consider that independently now. We can value this building without knowing that. Though I always find it’s somewhat hard to forget.
Audience: Right. Okay. I was just curious, I mean I wanted to seek more towards how all these things in art and music and creativity are often relayed between individuals as being spiritual or something along that nature whether or not the actual topic.
Christopher Hitchens: I wanted to say a bit more of this when I was speaking first. I think that the human need for the transcendent, for the spiritual is undeniable but that’s not the supernatural. It’s very important to understand. The feeling that people get out of landscape and music, or landscape and music in combination. The feeling of war and love at the same time has had extraordinary consequences for many people, or one or other on their own. These are the things we can’t do without but there’s no reason to attribute them to the supernatural. You’re not glimpsing anything but nature from that.
Audience: Hi. So it turns out if you follow the money trail back for a lot of these things, this whole creationism, teaching creationism idea, you’ll eventually find political organizations that are trying to energize a base, right, these bases…
Christopher Hitchens: Yes.
Audience: What they’d like to do is to get these people to feel like they’re being attacked. And in lot of the discussions we have in your presentation, there’s a fine line between attacking people versus attacking ideas, right? What do you do to kind of ensure that you’re not going after people and not making people feel like you’re telling them that they’re idiots for example? All right. How do you make that separation?
Christopher Hitchens: Well, I think my answer’s been anticipated perhaps. If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings I’m still waiting to hear what your point is. I’m very depressed that in this country you can be told that’s offensive as if those two words constitute an argument or comment, not to me they don’t, and I’m not running for anything. So, I didn’t have to pretend to like people when I don’t.
Speaker: Oh, thank you so much for speaking. I think we’re going to have a book signing right outside over here. So, if everyone got their copy of the book, thank you very much for coming.
Christopher Hitchens: How very nice of you.