We at HDT mourn the loss of the great wit and wonder, Christopher Hitchens. In a pungent irony to which he would no doubt raise a glass, Hitchens, who decried hero worship, became an idol to countless muckrakers and misanthropes.
A classic Hitchslap from a recent debate:
Friday, December 16, 2011
Friday, October 21, 2011
[Introductions by Thomas Banchoff and moderator Michael Cromartie]
HITCHENS: Well, thank you Georgetown, thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming. Thank you, Michael, for that suspiciously terse introduction, which of all the introductions I've heard to myself, is certainly the most recent. Thank you, seriously, to the Ethics and Public Policy Center and for your work, for conceiving this idea, for encouraging me to do it, for bringing us (Dr. McGrath) all the way from our common alma mater of Oxford and for the regular seminars that you may not know that Michael does all the time on these matters of faith versus reason which is, after all, the ground on which we are met this evening. I always come before events like this with antagonists like Dr. McGrath with a slight sense, a very slight sense—I hope it doesn't sound self-pitying—of inequality. My views are, if I say it for myself, tolerably well advertised and if they're not, it's partly your fault because what I say is fairly intelligible, very plainly stated, if—you know what I think if you care to find out. When I debate with Jews and Muslims and Christians, I very often find, I say, "Well, do you really believe there was a virgin birth?" "Do you really believe in a Genesis creation?" "Do you really believe in bodily resurrection?" and I get a sort of Monty Python reply: "Well, there's a little bit of metaphorical, really." I'm not sure, and I’m going to find out—I’m determined to find out this evening which line on this my antagonist does take and I want you to notice and I want you to test him on it because I think it's fair and I'm going to talk to him and to you as if he did represent the Christian faith. I can't do all three monotheisms tonight. I may get a whack at the other two in the course of the discussion, I can only really do his and I'm going to assume that it means something to him and that it's not just a humanist metaphysics and I think I'm entitled to that assumption. The main thing I want to dispute this evening—because I'm either drowning in time with twenty minutes, it's either too much or too little—is this: you hear it very often said by people of a vague faith that, well it may not be the case that religion is metaphysically true; its figures and its stories may be legendary or dwell on the edge of myth, prehistoric, its truth claims may be laughable; we have better claims—excuse me, better explanations for the origins and birth of our cosmos and our species now, so much better so, in fact, that had they been available to begin with, religion would never have taken root. No one would now go back to the stage when we didn't have any real philosophy, we only had mythology, when we thought we lived on a flat planet or when we thought that our planet was circulated by the sun instead of the other way around, when we didn't know that there were micro-organisms as part of creation and that they were more powerful than us and had dominion over us rather than we, them, when we were fearful of the infancy of our species. We, we wouldn't have taken up theism if we'd known now what we did then, but allow for all that, allow for all that, you still have to credit religion with being the source of ethics and morals. Where would we get these from if it weren't from faith? I think, in the time I've got, I think that's the position I most want to undermine. I don't believe that it's true that religion is moral or ethical. I certainly don't believe of course that any of its explanations about the origin of our species or the Cosmos or its ultimate destiny are true either. In fact, I think most of those have been conclusively, utterly discredited, but I'll deal with the remaining claim. It is moral—okay, and I can only do Christianity this evening—is it moral to believe that your sins, yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might, if I wished, if I knew any of you, you were my friends or even if I didn't know you but I just loved the idea of you (compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity, by the way), but suppose I could say, “Look, you're in debt, I've just made a lot of money out of a God-bashing book, I'll pay your debts for you. Maybe you'll pay me back some day, but for now I can get you out of trouble.” I could say if I really loved someone who had been sentenced to prison if I can find a way of saying I'd serve your sentence, I'd try and do it. I could do what Sydney Carton does in a Tale of Two Cities, if you like—I'm very unlikely to do this unless you've been incredibly sweet to me—I'll take your place on the scaffold, but I can't take away your responsibilities. I can't forgive what you did, I can't say you didn't do it, I can't make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive middle eastern society was "scapegoating." You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat, you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. And you think you've taken away the sins of the tribe. This is a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility on which all ethics and all morality must depend. It has a further implication. I'm told that I have to have a share in this human sacrifice even though it took place long before I was born. I have no say in it happening, I wasn't consulted about it. Had I been present I would have been bound to do my best to stop the public torture and execution of an eccentric preacher. I would do the same even now. No, no, I'm implicated in it, I, myself, drove in the nails, I was present at Calvary, it confirms the original filthy sin in which I was conceived and born, the sin of Adam in Genesis. Again, this may sound a mad belief, but it is the Christian belief. Well it's here that we find something very sinister about monotheism and about religious practice in general: It is incipiently at least, and I think often explicitly, totalitarian. I have no say in this. I am born under a celestial dictatorship which I could not have had any hand in choosing. I don't put myself under its government. I am told that it can watch me while I sleep. I'm told that it can convict me of—here's the definition of totalitarianism—thought crime, for what I think I may be convicted and condemned. And that if I commit a right action, it's only to evade this punishment and if I commit a wrong action, I'm going to be caught up not just with punishment in life for what I've done which often follows axiomatically, but, no, even after I'm dead. In the Old Testament, gruesome as it is, recommending as it is of genocide, racism, tribalism, slavery, genital mutilation, in the displacement and destruction of others, terrible as the Old Testament gods are, they don't promise to punish the dead. There's no talk of torturing you after the earth has closed over the Amalekites. Only toward when gentle Jesus, meek and mild, makes his appearance are those who won't accept the message told they must depart into everlasting fire. Is this morality, is this ethics? I submit not only is it not, not only does it come with the false promise of vicarious redemption, but it is the origin of the totalitarian principle which has been such a burden and shame to our species for so long. I further think that it undermines us in our most essential integrity. It dissolves our obligation to live and witness in truth. Which of us would say that we would believe something because it might cheer us up or tell our children that something was true because it might dry their eyes? Which of us indulges in wishful thinking, who really cares about the pursuit of truth at all costs and at all hazards? Can it not be said, do you not, in fact, hear it said repeatedly about religion and by the religious themselves that, "Well it may not be really true, the stories may be fairy tales, the history may be dubious, but it provides consolation." Can anyone hear themselves saying this or have it said of them without some kind of embarrassment? Without the concession that thinking here is directly wishful, that, yes, it would be nice if you could throw your sins and your responsibilities on someone else and have them dissolved, but it's not true and it's not morally sound and that's the second ground of my indictment. [To Michael Cromartie] (Michael, you will tell me when I'm trespassing on the time of Dr. McGrath, won't you?) On our integrity, our basic integrity, knowing right from wrong and being able to choose a right action over a wrong one, I think one must repudiate the claim that one doesn't have this moral discrimination innately, that, no, it must come only from the agency of a celestial dictatorship which one must love and simultaneously fear. What is it like, I've never tried it, I've never been a cleric, what is it like to lie to children for a living and tell them that they have an authority, that they must love—compulsory love, what a grotesque idea—and be terrified of it at the same time. What's that like? I want to know. And that we don't have an innate sense of right and wrong, children don't have an innate sense of fairness and decency, which of course they do. What is it like? I can personalize it to this extent, my mother's Jewish ancestors are told that until they got to Sinai, they'd been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and they get to Mount Sinai only to be told it's not kosher after all. I'm sorry, excuse me, you must have more self-respect than that for ourselves and for others. Of course the stories are fiction. It's a fabrication exposed conclusively by Israeli archaeology. Nothing of the sort ever took place, but suppose we take the metaphor? It's an insult, it's an insult to us, it's an insult to our deepest integrity. No, if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn't have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else. Now we're told what we have to believe and this is—I'm coming now to the question of whether or not science, reason and religion are compatible or I would rather say reconcilable. The great Stephen J. Gould—the late, great Stephen J. Gould said that he believed they were non-overlapping magisteria; you can be both a believer and a person of faith. Sitting in front of me is a very distinguished—extremely distinguished scholar Francis Collins, helped us to unlock the human genome project, who is himself a believer. I'd love to hear from him, I hope we hear from him. I don't believe that he says his discoveries of the genome convinced him of the truth of religion. He holds it, as it were, independently. [to Francis Collins] I hope I do you no wrong, sir, in phrasing it like that. Here's why I, a non-scientist, will say that I think it's radically irreconcilable, I'd rather say, than incompatible. I've taken the best advice I can on how long Homo sapiens has been on the planet. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, many others, and many discrepant views from theirs, reckon it's not more than 250,000 years, a quarter of a million years. It's not less, either. I think it's roughly accepted, [to Francis Collins] I think, sir you wouldn't disagree. 100,000 is the lowest I've heard and actually I was about to say, again not to sound too Jewish, I'll take 100,000. I only need 100,000, call it one hundred. For 100,000 years Homo sapiens was born, usually, well not usually, very often dying in the process or killing its mother in the process; life expectancy probably not much more than 20, 25 years, dying probably of the teeth very agonizingly, nearer to the brain as they are, or of hunger or of micro-organisms that they didn't know existed or of events such as volcanic or tsunami or earthquake types that would have been wholly terrifying and mysterious as well as some turf wars over women, land, property, food, other matters. You can fill in—imagine it for yourself what the first few tens of thousands of years were like. And we like to think learning a little bit in the process and certainly having gods all the way, worshipping bears fairly early on, I can sort of see why; sometimes worshipping other human beings, (big mistake, I'm coming back to that if I have time), this and that and the other thing, but exponentially perhaps improving, though in some areas of the world very nearly completely dying out, and a bitter struggle all along. Call it 100,000 years. According to the Christian faith, heaven watches this with folded arms for 98,000 years and then decides it's time to intervene and the best way of doing that would be a human sacrifice in primitive Palestine, where the news would take so long to spread that it still hasn't penetrated very large parts of the world and that would be our redemption of human species. Now I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that that is, what I've just said, which you must believe to believe the Christian revelation, is not possible to believe, as well as not decent to believe. Why is it not possible? Because a virgin birth is more likely than that. A resurrection is more likely than that and because if it was true, it would have two further implications: It would have to mean that the designer of this plan was unbelievably lazy and inept or unbelievably callous and cruel and indifferent and capricious, and that is the case with every argument for design and every argument for revelation and intervention that has ever been made. But it's now conclusively so because of the superior knowledge that we've won for ourselves by an endless struggle to assert our reason, our science, our humanity, our extension of knowledge against the priests, against the rabbis, against the mullahs who have always wanted us to consider ourselves as made from dust or from a clot of blood, according to the Koran, or as the Jews are supposed to pray every morning, at least not female or gentile. And here's my final point, because I think it's coming to it. The final insult that religion delivers to us, the final poison it injects into our system: It appeals both to our meanness, our self-centeredness and our solipsism and to our masochism. In other words, it's sadomasochistic. I'll put it like this: you're a clot of blood, you're a piece of mud, you're lucky to be alive, God fashioned you for his convenience, even though you're born in filth and sin and even though every religion that's ever been is distinguished principally by the idea that we should be disgusted by our own sexuality. Name me a religion that does not play upon that fact. So you're lucky to be here, originally sinful and covered in shame and filth as you are, you're a wretched creature, but take heart, the Universe is designed with you in mind and heaven has a plan for you. Ladies and gentlemen, I close by saying I can't believe there is a thinking person here who does not realize that our species would begin to grow to something like its full height if it left this childishness behind, if it emancipated itself from this sinister, childish nonsense. And I now commit you to the good Dr. McGrath. Thank you.
[Introduction by Michael Cromartie]
McGRATH: Well thank you very much, indeed. It's a huge pleasure to be here at Georgetown this afternoon. Now, if someone had told me when I was growing up that I'd be here at such a distinguished place as Georgetown talking about atheism, I would have been extremely surprised, I think for two reasons. One was: I grew up in Northern Ireland. Now, some of you might come from this place. It's a kind of rather backward place and the greatest annual event of my youth was the Donnekadi Donkey Darby, so you can see coming to some place like Washington is just amazing, so, you know, it's great to be here. But what surprised me more if someone were to say that you're taking part in a debate about atheism, is that I would have assumed I would have been on the atheist side, because certainly as a young man that was what I believed. I grew up in Northern Ireland studying the sciences, wanting to go to Oxford to take this further and it was very, very clear to me that the sciences disproved God, they completely eroded the ground on which faith stood and of course there was violence between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. Therefore, my logic was infallible: no Catholics, no Protestants, no violence between Catholics and Protestants. So it seemed to me to be very, very straightforward. And certainly when I went up to Oxford to begin to study the sciences in much more detail, it seemed to me, really, I had sorted things out and could relax for a while. But I found myself being challenged by a number of things. One was being challenged by—beginning to read the history and philosophy of science and reading that the kind of scientific positivism I had imbibed wasn't quite as straightforward as I had suggested. And also beginning to realize actually that the evidential basis for atheism was much weaker than I had realized and I began to find myself being excited intellectually and stimulated far more than I dared to think by the Christian faith. And so in the end I came to faith swapping my old faith of atheism for my new one of Christianity. I don't think I did so as any kind of wish fulfillment, of any kind of psychological need, it was much more just a profound intellectual conviction that this was right, that this made sense in itself and this made sense of things, as well. It was like someone I suppose who had knew water suddenly discovering champagne. So for me this was really a very significant event and indeed to this day I still look back at my atheist days with great nostalgia, even though I no longer actually hold to those positions. And so it's a very great pleasure to be able to interact this afternoon with Christopher Hitchens. And I wanted to make it very clear that what he is saying today needs to be respected and I hope I will behave respectfully towards him. I want to offer some points of disagreement, some points of challenge, some points of agreement and also some genuine points of curiosity to try and get our conversation underway. And so I want to really focus on his main argument which I think you've heard very, very clearly, that religion is immoral and leads to immorality; that in some way it is toxic. These seem to me to be very significant arguments, very significant claims and, therefore, I want to try and engage with them. I apologize to him and indeed I also apologize to you in that in the time available I will not be able to interact with him properly, but at least I hope I can begin to get this conversation moving forward. So an obvious question I find myself asking as I both read Mr. Hitchens' book and also listened to him speak is that I think there are aspects of this that I would have loved to have heard more about. For example, in recent years, especially the last 15 years, there's been a very substantial body of scientific research into the empirical effect that religious commitment actually has on people. And as someone who was a scientist and still remains wedded to evidence-based thinking, I wondered if this might actually come into Mr. Hitchens' presentation. To give you an example, if we look at Koenig and Cohen's very famous book published in 2001, The Link Between Religion and Health, we find that the overwhelming body of empirical studies to look at this find a positive correlation between religious commitment and well-being. Now that does not prove that there is a God and certainly it does not prove that all forms of religion are good for you. Now I will gladly concede because I think Mr. Hitchens is right on this that there are some forms of religion that are pathological, that damage people. But there is a need I think for a real discussion about what is pathological and what is normal, about what is the center and what are the fringes. And that, I think, also extends to Mr. Hitchens' analysis of the impact of religion in general. He makes the point, and I think I want to say he is right to make this point, that religion has done much damage in history. I regard that point as being beyond contradiction and it seems to me that every one of us here this afternoon needs to say that is right. But I think we need also to go further and begin to explore and the kind of questions I would like to open up for discussion would include these: Yes, religion has done damage, but is this typical or is this a fringe element? Who are the normal people, who are the fanatics? And it seems to me there's a real need to try and make this kind of adjudication. I grant the history is there, that there have been some awful things done, but Michael Shermer, who is President of the Skeptics Society, wrote in the book How We Believed some years ago, for every one of these atrocities which must cause all of us deep concern, there are 10,000 unreported acts of kindness, generosity, and so forth arising from religious commitment. And trying to get this balance right seems to me to be of enormous importance. What is the fringe? What is the center? So that's one point I think I'd like to open up for further discussion. But I'd also like to try and just make a more general point and that is I think that worldiews in general, whether they are religious, irreligious, whatever they are, have the capacity to animate people to the extent that they feel they must go and do things which many of us would regard as morally reprehensible. We see this in the Soviet Union, a rather grim period in modern history where we find, for example, Lenin having said basically that there is no higher authority by which he may be judged, feeling able to "authorize the protracted use of brutality against religious believers." And it seems to me we have here an ideology, a world view which basically is sanctioning violence, in this case anti-religious violence. Now I would not argue from that that this shows that atheism in general or atheists in particular are violent people. It's much more about what movements do to people, about the damage that world views can cause when they begin to take over and begin to really animate people to want to do things. Again, look at the period under Stalin. There are many other examples we could give of world views that may well have begun with great excitement, great enthusiasm, a commitment to ideals that we can all identify with, but something happens and they go wrong. The French Revolution, I believe, began with an outburst of energy for liberty, but by 1793 it had degenerated into the reign of terror in which an appeal to liberty sanctioned the most dreadful acts of violence. And many of you all know the tragic story of Madame Roland who was brought to the guillotine on trumped-up charges in 1793 and as she was led to the guillotine, she pointed to a Statute of Liberty in the Place de Revolution and said, "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." History I think discloses a complex judgment here. I do not believe that it simply points to religion as being the cause of evil. I think it points to the capacity of all worldviews to begin to do this. It's not so much religion or, indeed, anti-religion, it seems to be something actually about human nature itself, which means that acts of kindness can be accompanied by acts of violence. There's something about us, I think, that really needs to be addressed there. So I don't think it's [x] religion poisons everything? I'm not sure. It can do, but so can other things, as well. The real problem I think is extremism, the kinds of ideologies that force violence upon us and those it seems to me do need to be challenged and on that, I'm at one with Mr. Hitchens. But is it God that's doing this? Let's move on and talk about this. Clearly a very important question here is how we know what God is like. Can you imagine God saying, "Go and do violence to someone." Well I think some could, quite easily. But I speak from a specific perspective, namely, that of a Christian theologian and for Christianity. The identity, the nature of God is disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the image of the invisible God, he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And when we look at Jesus of Nazareth, we see something I think that is very, very challenging. We have one who refuses to do violence, even in Gethsemane, when some want to raise swords to defend him as he's about to be betrayed, he bids them put their swords down. Jesus does not do violence, but he has violence done to him. And the point I want to make is that your vision of what God is like has a profound impact on what you think God is urging you to do. And it seems to me that if one is a good Christian, then one is going to take the vision of what God is like and what God wants us to do from what we find disclosed in Jesus with the utmost seriousness. Now let me make it absolutely clear, I concede, and I may well be one of these, that there are many bad Christians around who fail to live up to this vision, but I want to draw a clear distinction between "some Christians are bad" and "Christianity is bad." There is an aspiration, an inspiration, and norm and that means one can challenge those who want in some way to use violence in the name of God. And of course you can see this impacting on the way which people behave. In an episode that happened a year ago here in the United States, you've had, unfortunately, in recent days, some shooting incidents and of course what I'm talking about is the Amish schoolhouse killings of October 2006. Many of you know of these and some of you may have been affected by them. A crazed gunman broke into an Amish schoolhouse and shot I think it was ten Amish school girls, of whom five died. The Amish, as I'm sure you all know, are a very conservative Protestant sect who wear 17th-century clothing, who won't drive cars, they use horse buggies, and they also regard the ethical example of Jesus as absolutely normative. For them, there would be no retribution of any kind. The cycle of violence was broken instantly because for them, Christ ordered them, commanded them to show forgiveness. That's a very important point. Religion, or at least in this case Christianity, contains within itself the capacity for self-criticism. This is not the way God is, this is not the way we should be behaving and I fully concede there are those who fail to live up to that, but there is a challenge that can be issued to them: Why behave like this when there is the norm before you authorized as to what God would like us to do? So it seems to me there's a very important point to make there. Now Mr. Hitchens made some very interesting points about the relationship of science and faith. And of course, for me who was studying science, got to Oxford, doing research in molecular biophysics, these were live questions and I certainly welcome his challenge to discuss these things further, but for me there has never been this opposition between science and faith. Certainly some say there is, but I would want to make this point, building on what Stephen J. Gould says: Gould, in his book Rocks of Ages makes the point, I think fairly, that although in his case he's an atheist, he was not an atheist on account of his science, that in many ways his atheism was already there; he brought it to his science. And he makes this point: That science by its legitimate methods cannot adjudicate the God question. Certainly we can read nature in an atheist way, we can read nature in an agnostic way, we can read nature in a Christian way. But nature in itself and of itself does not force us to any of those positions. I will simply say that I find my Christian faith gave me new intellectual energy both to engage the natural order, to engage nature is to learn more about God and also to energize my understanding of what I was observing. And I find this summed up in a quote from C. S. Lewis which I am in the habit of quoting, I'm afraid: "I believe," he writes, "in Christianity, as I believe the sun has risen, not simply because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." In other words, it gives you an intellectual lens or framework through which you can look at the world, ourselves, culture and see it in a new light. So for me science and religion, there may be tensions, but is also a very powerful synergy which I believe to be both welcome and also something that can be developed further. But let me move on if I may, and make a further point. Mr. Hitchens makes some very significant criticisms of religion, which I need—which I agree need to be taken seriously but what, I wonder, does he offer in its place? In his book he talks a bit, especially the beginning and the end, of the need for a New Enlightenment. And I find this puzzling, though nevertheless extremely interesting. I find it puzzling because for me as an intellectual historian, the Enlightenment really had been left behind us as being, in the view of many post-modern critics, a world view that led to intolerance and a world view that actually generated the potential for conflict and violence. You all know why post modernity moved away from modernity on that point. And also, again a point I would love to discuss further with Mr. Hitchens, people like Alistair McIntyre, other critics of modernity, make the point that its foundational judgments about the nature of reason, the nature of what is right actually cannot be sustained on the basis of an appeal to history and reason itself. For McIntyre and for many others, the enlightenment offers us a vision of a rationality and morality which actually are unattainable in practice. Now again, we might want to have a discussion about morality and I fully accept that Mr. Hitchens is very committed to the moral vision as a real sense of what is right and what is wrong. But I wonder if one can sustain that without some sort of metaphysical basis. And the point I would want to raise is this: Is an evolutionary account of morality actually adequate to do the job? Richard Dawkins, with whom I disagree on many things, in his The Selfish Gene makes the point that we alone have the capacity to react against our genes to offer something better than we are genetically landed with, and it seems to me that is a very significant position. Moreagain, I discovered that both Mr. Hitchens and I are lapsed Marxists. To take Antonio Gramsci's point: Gramsci made the point that in culture, moral values are manipulated by interest groups. How on earth can we defend ourselves against this? My real question to Mr. Hitchens is, "Can one have a viable moral system without some sort of transcendent basis of morality?" I make this point not to challenge him as a moral thinker, but simply to ask whether one can actually do this. So I must end and I do so, if I may, by telling you a story based on my own Northern Ireland. The story is told of two Catholic nuns who were driving along one night when they ran out of gas. They realized they passed a gas station about 100 yards back, so they decided to walk back and fill up with gas. They rummaged about in the back of the car and they found a glass container which would do the job. Unfortunately it was a medical specimen jar with the word "urine" written all over it. That is all they had. They went back, filled it up and went to the car and started to pour this into the gas tank. A Protestant farmer drove by on his tractor and he looked at them in utter astonishment and he said, "Ladies, I don't think much of your religion, but I certainly admire your faith." And as I hear Mr. Hitchens speak, I find myself wondering if he, too, is a man of faith, a man who believes that even though we can't absolutely justify certain beliefs, nevertheless, we can trust them. He says, "Our beliefs are not beliefs," but I think they are and the real question for me is in a world where reason and science do not deliver what we once thought they did, on what can we base our lives if we are to know that we are truly living the good, the beautiful, and the true life. Thank you very much.
CROMARTIE: Mr. Hitchens will take the podium again.
HITCHENS: Michael wanted to do this sitting down, but I'm—it's the old demagogue in me; I need the pulpit, I need the podium, and if I can't be erect at least I can be upright. (By the way, do you know why the Amish girl was excommunicated? Two men a night.) Look, I'm going to take the Doctor's excellent points in order, if I may, and you will I'm sure have minds orderly enough to recall the order in which he made them. On the empirical evidence, so-called adduced, that a religious faith can lead to greater health and well-being, I, in a sense, do not doubt it. In other words, I can easily imagine those who think they are the special object of a divine design, feel better for thinking so. I just think it's going to be very important for anyone claiming this to see the dismaying trap door that is right under their feet. If you're going to claim this for one, how are you not going to claim it for all? Do we not hear incessantly that the Hamas organization in Gaza is a provider of welfare to the poorest of the poor? Have we not heard this? Do we not hear that Louis Farrakhan's crackpot racist organization, the Nation of Islam, gets young people off drugs? For all I know, it's true. It not only says nothing about the truth or validity of their theology, but it must say a certain amount at least about our willingness to think wishfully or cultishly, which was, if you like, part of my point to begin with. As to the center versus the fringe, I get this all the time, "Don't judge religion by its fundamentalists and its extremists." No, why should I? I don't have to. I judge it by its foundational texts and I judge it by the statements of its authorities. Take a case from the Koran, just for once, does it—actually, it's not the Koran, excuse me, take a case from the Muslim foundational documents, the Hadith, which have equal conical authority. They say if someone becomes an apostate, leaves or changes their religion, they must be killed. The sentence is death. Don't anyone be telling me that's a metaphor. Oh, it's just intended as just a sort of admonition. No, it means what it says and it's been applied to a couple of people who now have to live, friends of mine, as a matter of fact, as political refugees in Washington, D.C., who know how true the impact of that Hadith is. There's no wiggle room there, so the question for a Muslim must be asked, "Do you think this is the word of God or don't you?" Because if you don't, you're saying that God shouldn't be able to tell you to do an evil thing and if you do, you're saying he should. In either case, faith falls as a reinforcement of ordinary morality. Recently—Dr. McGrath is a member of the Church of England, the Anglican communion, the Episcopalian communion, but what George Herbert, my favorite religious poet after John Donne, "the sweet mediocrity of our native church"—or something—he referred to, "the sea of Canterbury." Everyone thinks it's the mildest of all, and it not only calls itself a flock, it looks very sheep-like. However, the Bishop of Carlisle recently—tipped I'm told to be the next Arch Bishop of Canterbury, really said that the floods in Northern Yorkshire that devastated a large part of England in the Summer and killed and dispossessed a large number of people were a punishment for homosexuality. Now to connect meteorology to morality seems to me, I have to say, flat out idiotic, whichever way you do it. If there was a connection between meteorology and morality, which religion has very often argued that there is, I don't see why the floods hit Northern Yorkshire. I could think of some parts of London where they would have done it a lot more good, just as the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, we found, punishment for sin as it must have been, left the French Quarter alone. You have to make up your mind on this, you either think God intervenes or he doesn't. I'm clear, I say I don't think so. Will Dr. McGrath say that He does intervene and that we can tell when He does or will he not say so? You have to ask him, you have to hear his answer, does he say “He sometimes intervenes,” or does he say, “He moves in mysterious ways”? My position is clear, his remains I think distinctly opaque. It was the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Jeffrey Fisher, who said the following: That "a thermal nuclear war would only hasten our transition into a more blessed state into which we were bound to eventuate anyway." If I had told you that remark and asked you to guess, you could have said Mahmoud Ahmadinajad said it or some other fanatical verminous Mullah. No, the Archbishop of Canterbury said it and why shouldn't he? Because another immoral and sinister thing about religion is that lurking under it at all times in every one of its versions is a desire for this life to come to an end, for this poor world to be over. The yearning, the secret death wish that's in all of it, let this be gone, let us move to the next stage, is present at all times. Unless it's repudiated, which I invite Dr. McGrath to do. But if he does so, I don't see what eschatological sense he can claim to remain a Christian. And he can't take it à la cart. If you claim or accept the one version, you have to accept the other. If it's true in general that religion does one thing and some people do good from it, then you have to accept all the wicked acts that are attributable to it as well, and I think you'll find that those don't quite equalize at the margin, depressing though that conclusion would be. I have a challenge which I have now put in print on the Christianity Today website, in Holy Blossom Synagogue in Toronto the night before last and in many other places, and on the air, and on the web, and it's this: If it's to be argued that our morality or ethics can be derived from the supernatural, then name me an action, a moral action, taken by a believer or a moral statement uttered by one, that could not have been made or uttered by an infidel, a non-believer. I have tried this everywhere on a large number of people, and I've not yet had even one reply. But if I was to ask you can you think of a wicked action that could only have been performed by someone who believed they were on an errand from God, there isn't one of you who would take 10 seconds to think of an example. And what does that tell us? I would say it tells us a lot. And here's the bogus answer to it that was only very gently mentioned by Dr. McGrath this evening: “Well what about atheist nihilism, what about atheist cruelty, what about 20th-century totalitarianism?” I take this seriously enough to have put a chapter in my book about it (available, by the way, in fine bookstores everywhere) and I can only summarize it now and I will do it so very tersely as I can. First, Fascism, the original 20th-century totalitarian movement, is really, historically, another name for the political activity of the Catholic right wing. There is no other name for it—Francoism, Salazarism, what happened in Croatia, in Austria, in Barbaria and so on—the church keeps on trying to apologize for it, can't apologize for it enough, it's the Catholic right, Mussolini. You can't quite say that about Hitler, National Socialism, because that's also based on Nordic and Pagan blood myths, leader worship and so on, though Hitler never repudiated his membership of the church and prayers were said for him on his birthday every year until the very end on the orders of the Vatican. And all of these facts are well known and the church still hasn't found any way to apologize for that enough. And whatever it is, you can call that, you can't call it secular. You may not call it secular. By the way, Joseph Goebles was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. 50 percent, according to Paul Johnson the Catholic historian, of the Waffen SS were confessing Catholics, none of them was ever threatened with ex-communication, even threatened for it—with it for taking part in the final solution. But Joseph Goebles was ex-communicated for marrying a Protestant. You see, we do have our standards. Now, ok, moving to Marxism, moving to Leninism. Ok, in Russia in 1917, for hundreds of years millions of people have been told the head of the State is a supernatural power. The Czar is not just the head of the Government, not just a king, but he stands between heaven and earth. And this has been inculcated in generations of Russians for hundreds of years. If you're Joseph Stalin, himself a seminarian from Georgia, you shouldn't be in the totalitarianism business if you can't exploit a ready-made reservoir of credulity and servility that's as big as that. It's just waiting for you to capitalize on. So what do you do? Well we'll have an Inquisition, for one thing; we'll have miracles, for another, Lysenko's biology will produce four harvests a year; we'll have harvestry hunts; we'll tell everyone they must be grateful only to the leader for what they get and they must thank him and praise him all the time and that they must be aware all the time of the existence of the counter-revolutionary devil who waits to—you see where I'm going with this. [To Cromartie] Uh, Michael? Oh do I really need two [minutes]? Ok, I'll tell you my North Korea stories another time. Here's—its surrogate, it is and the very best and the very worst, the examples I've been talking about, are a surrogate for Messiahnism for the belief in ultimate history and the end of days and the conclusion of all things which is, I've tried to argue, I hope with some success, the problem to begin with. The replacement of reason by faith, the discarding of the one thing that makes us important and useful and different from other primates in favor of something that requires no evidence and just requires incantation. Not good for you. If Dr. McGrath or anyone else could come up with an example of a society which had fallen into slavery and bankruptcy and beggary and terror and misery because it had adopted the teachings and the precepts of Spinoza and Einstein and Pierre Bayle and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, then I'd be impressed and that would be a fair test on a level playing field, but you will find no such example. Indeed, the nearest such example that we do have is these great United States, the first country in the world to have a Constitution that forbids the mention of religion in the public square, except by way of limiting it and saying that the State can take no interest in establishment of faith. Best known under the rubric of the wall of separation. My new slogan is, “Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.” Hope you'll join me in it. Very quickly in my last minute: Yes, Dr. McGrath, you're right, there is something about us as a species that is problematic, it isn't just explained by religion. Something about us that tempts us to do wrong. It's pretty easily explained, I think. We are primates, high primates, but primates. We're half a chromosome away from chimpanzees and it shows. It especially shows in the number of religions we invent to console ourselves or to give us things to quarrel with other primates about. If anything demonstrates that God is manmade, not man God made, surely it is the religions erected by this quasi-chimpanzee species and the harm that they're willing to inflict on that basis. I think on the point of Christology that you closed with I ought not to take any more of the audience's time but be prepared to discuss and I hope I've yielded back some of my time to questions and I'm grateful, again, for your indulgence. Thank you.
McGRATH: Well, Mr. Hitchens posed quite a few questions for me in his opening address [indecipherable] begin to wrestle with them. What do I think about the resurrection? Do I think it as being metaphorical? Well, I'll tel you what I think and you can make up your own minds about this. I think the resurrection is a historical event, something that happened in history, was seen as intriguing but not obviously interpreted as something of dramatic significance. The key question was not simply the history, but also its meaning. And so in the New Testament, for example, we see debates taking place around the time of the resurrection which are primarily concerned "what does this mean?" In other words, something seems to have happened, but it's a historical event, what is the overall meaning of this event? And so for me that, that second question begins to emerge as being of major importance. And in the New Testament we see a number of ideas beginning to emerge, the most important of these is that in some way Jesus had been demonstrated to have some sort of relationship with God that validated his teaching; in other words, that authorized him to speak with authority on what God was like. It's a bit like, you know, interpreting something like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I mean, you can think of that as having two different elements: On the one hand there is the physical event, the crossing of a river, which of course in this case is not particularly difficult, but then there is its historical significance in that the Rubicon marked the boundary between the Roman colonies and Rome itself. To cross that with an armory was, in effect, a declaration of war. So for me an historical event with a deeper theological significance and that significance, it seems to me, is articulated by the New Testament in terms of, first of all, who Jesus Christ is, but secondly also what the implications of this might be for human nature. And of course the Christian hope of eternal life, the very strong New Testament declaration that we are people who have hope is very much grounded on that particular idea. Now Mr. Hitchens moved on and began to talk I think very interestingly about God as a celestial dictator. And again, I think that is a very significant idea. Now certainly I hear what he's saying, but for me God is a celestial liberator. And I wonder if we have a very different perspective on this same event. Is there a real difference here which we can justify in terms of metaphysics or is this simply a different perspective on how we see things? Mr. Hitchens clearly is emphasizing that religion can do some bad things and I want to say that I believe he is right to alert us to that and to avoid any uncritical evaluation of religion. But there is this deeper side which I do want to just emphasize. The New Testament talks about the truth setting you free, it talks about the glorious liberty of the children of God and maybe we've lost that. Maybe somehow we've bound this up with all kinds of rituals and so on, so have lost sight of it. But as you read the New Testament, I think, there is this outburst of energy, of liberation that something has happened which has transformed the human situation, brought hope and at the same time liberated us from fear of death and also to do some very good things. Certainly we fail, certainly we fall, but for me I think the idea of God as a celestial dictator is one that I don't really recognize myself, although I can see where it's coming from. Now Mr. Hitchens then went on and issued a very powerful challenge against religion as any form of wishful thinking that provides consolation. And again, he makes a number of points that I think are perfectly fair. One of these is that wishful thinking is precisely that; it's what we would like to be the case, it bears no relationship to what actually is the case. And also he makes a point that consolation is, well, I'll put it like this, it's for losers, isn't it? Certainly when I was an atheist myself I very much took the view that religion was for mad, bad, or sad people and certainly you can see that emphasis on consolation would correspond very well with that third group. But I think there are some points we need to look at. The historical roots of this argument go back to Ludwig Feuerbach in the year 1841 when he wrote his very famous book dealing with the essence of Christianity. And in that book he argues very lucidly along the lines Mr. Hitchens indicated, that people believe in God because in some way this is about their aspirations, their hopes, their longings being actualized when of course there is no God to believe in. It's simply we wish it were like this, but we know it's not and we're in denial. So a belief in God is seen as the projection of some imaginary figure on some transcendent's screen. Now I think Feuerbach does make an important point. But I want to make two points in response. Number one: the fact that we might wish something to be true certainly does not make it true, but the fact that we wish to be true does not make it false for that reason. I mean, for example, you can hear my voice is beginning to dry up and I would very much there to be some water and—there is still some left I'm pleased to say. But the point is my desire does not negate the reality. [To stage] Thank you very much indeed. I'll turn away and count to five. [To audience] But I think more interestingly is this: I wonder—I wonder if atheism might also be a form of wishful thinking. Now again, those of you who studied cultural history will know that one of the points very often made is that the emergence of atheism as a significant historical phenomenon in the eighteenth century was this deep desire to change things. If there were no God, we could do as we please. You all know Dostoyevsky's possessed were, and Kirilov makes this following comment: "If there is a God, I must do what God wants, but if there is no God, I do what I want." And again, you can see with atheism a kind of ethic of liberation. I'm able to do what I please, there are no limits. And again, you may have come across a very interesting essay by Czeslaw Milosz in the New York Times book review about ten years ago called "The Discreet Charm of Nihilism" where he says look, what has captivated us today is not the idea of religion as an escape from reality, but the idea that there is no God and, hence, no accountability. So we do what we please, and we are accountable to nobody. So I wonder if this argument actually works both ways. I think it's certainly a very interesting possibility to explore. Now Mr. Hitchens then moved on to talk about Mount Sinai. He made a point which I think is an interesting point and one that I need to engage with. "Mount Sinai," he said, "changed everything. Are we to understand that people had no moral sense before this, that somehow this brought morality into being?" And I think what I would say and I think most Christian theologians would say something like this, is that both the Old and the New Testaments are very, very clear that there was human wisdom around long before Sinai, that to use Paul's imagery that we are judged on the basis of what we do know where there is no knowledge of the law. What I would want to say is that the Old Testament and indeed the New Testament do not kind of way throw something down and say, "There, that's it, you didn't know about this before," but to quote from that very interesting document Fides et Ratio (Faith in Reason) origining from the late Pope, I mean, that in some way, grace does not abolish nature, but rather perfects it. In other words, it brings to fulfillment these basic human instincts about what is right and what is wrong, correcting them when necessary, but still fulfilling these longings for righteousness, this desire to do what is right, which I believe to be so fundamental a part of human nature. And, therefore, for me the Christian faith, for example, does not kind of in a way throw down a series of arbitrary dictats, but rather it builds on what is already there precisely because for Christianity we are all God's creation and God has planted, if you like, signals or reminders of what He is like. Or to use that wonderful phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, in some way nature and humanity is "instressed" with the likeness of God. We then move on to talk about something that I think I touched on—Mr. Hitchens talks about the tension between science and faith. I think I may have touched on that in my own talk, so I won't repeat that now, only to say that for me there is a very healthy convergence and mutual enrichment between science and faith. But finally, he also made a point which is basically that it seems very unjust that Christianity teaches that redemption depends on explicit response to a gospel that's preached when so many haven't heard it. And I would certainly agree that that does seem very unjust. But again, the Christian tradition down the ages has been that the proclamation of the gospel brings things to fulfillment, but where it has not been heard, we are judged on the basis of what we do know and how we respond to it. Again, grace does not abolish nature, but perfects it. Thank you.
CROMARTIE: Well thank you, gentlemen, this is where we now have a conversation and I have got some questions from the audience and if there are other questions I am glad to receive them, but I have some here. Now the first question obviously is for you, Christopher. Since Mr. McGrath has just finished, I will put the question to you which is if God does not exist, on what basis can anyone say this action is right or this action is wrong?
HITCHENS: So whoever asked that only just came into the room, right? I mean, I can't believe that I didn't say what I thought about it, but I won't repeat it because actually what Dr. McGrath just said I thought was unusually good on this point. You'll recall what he said on the Dostoyevskian matter. (If God exists, we have to do what he says, if he doesn't, we can do what we like.) Now just apply this for a second in practice and in theory. Is it not said of God's chosen people and is it not said to them by God in the Pentateuch that they can do exactly as they like to other people? They can enslave them, they can take their land, they can take their women, they can destroy all their young men, they can help themselves to all their virgins, they can do what anyone who had no sense of anything but their own rights would be able to do, but in this case with divine permission. Doesn't that make it somewhat more evil? In Iran where I've been—I’ve been to all three axis of evil in those countries by the way, and I think I'm the only writer who can say that—you're not allowed to sentence a woman who is a virgin to death even though she may have committed in the eyes of the Mullahs a capital crime, perhaps by showing her hair too often or her limbs. She can't be sentenced to death. But religious law means she can be raped by the revolutionary guards, and then she's not a virgin anymore, then they can kill her. Do what though wilt shall be the whole of the law used to be considered the motto of Satanism, as I recall. Divine permission given to people who think they have God is on their side enables actions that a normal, morally normal unbeliever would not contemplate. The mutilation of genitalia of children, who would do that if it wasn't decided that God wanted it? Just as when a poet in England gets the poet laureateship they start to write drivel instead of poetry, for some reason. It's the King's scrofula the other way around. Morally normal and intelligent people find themselves saying fatuously wicked things when this subject comes up. The suicide bombing community is entirely faith based. The genital mutilation community is entirely faith based. Slavery is mandated by the Bible. You keep hearing how many abolitionists were Christians, well it was about time that they took a stand against it, having mandated it for so long. So it's not even a tautology, I think, to say that there's a relationship between the human impulse to do evil, to be selfish, to be self-centered, to be greedy, and a contrast between that and faith because given only faith, mountains can be moved and millions of people who would never normally acquiesce in evil are brought to it straightaway and with ease and with self-righteousness. There, that's my answer to that. And the questioner did not answer my challenge: name an ethical statement made or action performed by a believer in the name of faith that couldn't have been by an infidel. And name, if you can (this is easier) a wicked action that could only be mandated by faith and then you'll see how silly your question was, whoever you were.
CROMARTIE: Well let me ask it, then, Christopher. Did you—you heard Professor McGrath, also, though, condemn any form of religious violence.
HITCHENS: Well that's easy to do, I mean I could say—look, an atheist could be a nihilist...
CROMARTIE: No, I think there's room for agreement here between the two of you on that point.
HITCHENS: I'm not looking for consensus, baby, I'm just not in the mood. "I'm not in the vain," as King Richard says, "I'm not in the vain." No, I'm glad he condemns religious violence. Does he condemn the promise of other peoples territory to the chosen people, for example? Does Jesus say or does he not say, "I come to bring not peace, but a sword"? He does say that. Should I take that literally or metaphorically? Fine. Is genital mutilation of a small boy as mandated by Jews and is it often mandated by Muslims, or not? Is there a paradise to which people can hope to get by dying for their faith or isn't there? Has holy war been proclaimed by both the Pope and by the mullahs or not?
CROMARTIE: You put a lot...
HITCHENS: These are problems not for me. For me it's simple: we're primates. This is what we would expect to happen if there was no God.
CROMARTIE: Let me...
HITCHENS: It's what we would expect to see if faith was pointless, but it's an endless mystery where none exists if you think there's an intervening finger from on high, then it becomes mysterious.
CROMARTIE: Thank you.
HITCHENS: Don't mention it. You're welcome.
CROMARTIE: For Professor McGrath, here's a question: I would like to hear you expound on Mr. Hitchens' claim that the idea of a vicarious sacrifice is immoral or unethical. What is Christianity's explanation of this?
McGRATH: Well the phrase "vicarious sacrifice" isn't actually a Biblical phrase. It's a phrase that's used by some writers to refer to a particular interpretation of a Biblical teaching. And the key idea in the New Testament is that in some way the death of Christ, again violence done to Christ, not violence done by Christ, is seen as having a transformative potential for human beings and this transformative potential is articulated using a range of models, some of which are drawn from the Old Testament. For example, there's an analogy drawn with animal sacrifice and that is seen as in some way establishing a link between Christ's death and the bringing of the possibility of purity to someone. That is one of the images used. Others include, for example, the whole idea of healing, the idea of being set in the right relationship with God. There are a wide range of these. Now, Mr. Hitchens' particular criticism...
HITCHENS: Which of them is yours? I'd really like to know.
McGRATH: I'll tell you right now.
HITCHENS: No, please.
McGRATH: I want to make sure I do justice to both the question asked and your criticism made. For me—and I'll speak now very personally because I think I've been invited to and I'd be very happy to do that—for me the death of Christ on the cross means that something that I could never gain for myself has been done for me and offered to me. In other words, it is something that by myself as a human being I could never hope to achieve, is achieved on my behalf and offered to me and I am asked, "Will you accept what has been done for you?" In other words, it's about the possibility of transformation being offered to me but not being imposed upon me. And for me, that is about a God who offers but does not demand that I respond to him in this way. And I find that to be a very good summary of what the Christian faith is trying to say about a God who offers but does not impose. And again, those of you who are familiar with the New Testament will think of the imagery of Revelation, chapter three, which speaks of Christ knocking on the door and asking us to open the door but leaving that action open to us.
CROMARTIE: Okay. Mr. Hitchens?
HITCHENS: Not imposed? Did you really say not imposed? What if you reject this offer, what are you told? What have you been told by centuries of Christians if you reject this offer that took place by means of a torture to death of a human being that you didn't want and should have prevented if you could? What if you reject the offer? And if you accept it you have eternal life and your sins are forgiven. Oh, great. What a horrible way to abolish your own responsibility and get your own bliss. I don't want it. Oh, you don't? Well then you can go to hell. This is not imposed? This hasn't been preached to children by gruesome elderly virgins backed by force for centuries? This hasn't poisoned whole societies? No, of course it's imposed, it's not voluntary. The Pope of Rome, as I call—the Bishop of Rome, Mr. Ratzinger, Herr Ratzinger—has recently said actually it's worse than that: only my version of Christianity can get you salvation, there is only one way. I say it in Georgetown. There's only one. You presumably don't believe that because you're an Anglican, but on what basis do you tell the Pope that he's a heretic? Once you grant this stuff, once you start with this white noise chat about redemption, where's it going to end? Of course there's nothing voluntary about it and I must say the book of Revelations seems one of the less voluntary texts of the—all it does is look forward gleefully to Apocalypse, and to the passing away of this veil of tears into our ultimate destruction. This is morality? I don't think so.
CROMARTIE: Your response?
McGRATH: Well I think if I can just build on that because I think a very interesting line of discussion has opened up here. Number one, I think I do challenge your reading of the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is very much saying to Christians who are being persecuted for their faith by a secular authority who are, in effect, being victimized that this is not the way it's going to remain, that one day there will be an inversion of the world order. It's in effect an encouragement to those who are suffering. And again, I make my point again that Christianity is saying, "Look, here is an offer, it is yours to accept or not." I take it you do not believe in hell or anything like that and, therefore, I don't see what the difficulty is for you personally. It is not about imposition...
HITCHENS: You're in the right church but the wrong pew. I mean, yes, of course I've emancipated myself from all that nonsense and I wish you would do too. I'm saying what is the belief, and when you say it's voluntary, it's up to you, it's entirely optional, I don't think it's any more optional than Abraham saying to his son do you want to come for a long and gloomy walk, because God seems to be telling me to do something that had better be moral. Otherwise, it would have to be said that God had taken a perfectly normal person and asked him to commit an atrocity. Now where else could that have come from? Millions of people every year celebrate this act of sadomasochism as if it proved that God loved us so much that he'd make us kill our own children and then he decides to love us so much he'll kill one of his own. You said in a debate with Richard Dawkins, I have it down, you said that the great thing about God is He knows what it's like to lose a son. Now I want you ladies and gentlemen to ponder that expression for just a moment. First, it's self-evidently—if the story is true, which I don't think it is—it's self-evidently not the case, even in the narrative. He doesn't lose a son, He lends one. He doesn't offer one because no one's demanded it. There's no problem that has so far been identified in the human species that demands a human sacrifice. For what problem, for what ill is this a cure? There's no argument, there's no evidence that there is. No, it's imposed upon you. I'm doing this because the prophets said I would and I'm going to have the boy tortured to death in public to fulfill ancient screeds of Bronze Age Judaism. But wait, I don't want it. I don't need it. I don't feel better for it. I feel very uneasy about it. Well that's a pity, because then you're going to be cast into eternal fire. This is no way to talk. I don't like to be addressed in that tone of voice. So, to all this I have to return a slight non serviam, if I may be so bold, and take my chances morally, that that's the more ethical thing to do. I don't want torture, don't want human sacrifice, don't want authoritarian blood lettings, smoking temples and alters, incantations of priests around, don't want it, can't think of a single thing it will make better about our veil of tears.
CROMARTIE: Let me see if Professor McGrath has a response.
HITCHENS: Oh yes, by all means. I'm sorry if I bang on a bit about this.
McGRATH: No, I...
CROMARTIE: Don't worry, I'll interrupt.
McGRATH: I don't want those things either, and I think that nobody here really would. I think that one can interpret these things in these ways. You do and I appreciate that, but I want to make the point there are many other ways of looking at these within the Christian tradition and that it is very important to say that, you know, there are other ways of making sense of this. And I think we need to get some of them on the table. For me, and again I'd want to emphasize this point, the Christian vision of God is not a God who leaves us on our own, but a God who chooses to enter into time and history where we are in order to make possible for us, if we want it, a transformation of our situation.
HITCHENS: After 98,000 years of abstention?
McGRATH: I don't see any need to say this leads to torture or anything like that. If it does, that needs to be challenged, but the point for me is this is about something being offered to us with enormous potential for change.
CROMARTIE: Let me ask a question of Mr. Hitchens. As someone who considers himself a high primate, it seems strange that you would consider loving and witnessing the truth an obligation. Would you explain how a soulless primate can have any obligations?
HITCHENS: Well it's a question one often asks oneself. For example, why do I care, why do I mind about other primates? I think I know that, because I hope that they will, at the very lowest, as I said, because I hope they'll mind about me in return. I'll give you an example:
CROMARTIE: Why should they?
HITCHENS: Why, indeed. Why does one do the right thing, or what one hopes is the right thing, when no one's looking? Why does a Muslim cab driver go to all the trouble to come back to my apartment building when I didn't have his number to return a large sum of money I left on his back seat, said it was his religious duty. But if I allow him to say that that's his religious duty, what am I going to say when he says it's his religious duty to veil his wife or to blow himself up, or to impose Sharia Law? If you grant it once, you have to grant the whole thing, you can't do it a l&aecut; cart. Now I'll give you an example from my old socialist days (this will bring moisture to the eyes of Dr. McGrath, as well): it was our favorite example, Professor Peter Townsend's book on the gift relationship, you remember? Why does the British National Health Service never run out of blood, though you're not allowed to charge for it, you have to give it free? Never runs out of blood. Because people like to give blood. They want to feel useful. I like to do it, I like it very much and I'm not a masochist and I don't particularly like being stuck, but I lose—I like the way that I lose—someone gains a pint and I don't lose one because I replenish it quite quickly. Someone's instantly better off, I haven't had to abnegate myself by giving anything away. I like the fact that I'm helping someone who I don't know and, as it happens, I have a very rare blood group indeed, and one day I'm going to have to count on other people feeling the same way. So, human solidarity will get you quite a long way ethically and there's every reason why that should be in our genes, in our, so to speak, inscribed—we wouldn't have gotten this far if we didn't have these qualities. To say we couldn't have them without celestial permission seems to me to be simply slavish. And if we're all made in God's image, then how come there are so many sociopaths who don't notice the existence of other people or so many psychopaths for whom it's a positive pleasure to inflict pain? None of these—all of these are easily, easily solved questions if you make the assumption of evolution by natural selection and consider us as an animal species. If you detect the finger of God in all of this, you invent myriad problems that do not exist and cannot be solved and that are actually a waste of our mentality. Ockham's Razor disposes of all the supernatural assumptions that have ever been made. We have better and more elegant explanations for everything that happens in our cosmos and in our biology now and if we had had these to begin with, there would never have been the foothold for the death cult of Christianity or Islam or Judaism.
McGRATH: Well, perhaps I could just take this on the stage further. I mean, I think what you seem to be saying is that we are able to offer a complete scientific account of things which eliminates any place for the transcendent and I want to find...
HITCHENS: No, no, sorry, if I may, not that I—I wanted to speak to this and I will later I wanted to later, transcendent and the nominous are very important, but they are not to be confused with the supernatural.
McGRATH: I would want to say that the word "transcendent" means a number of different things and certainly the supernatural can be one of those, but it can also
mean some sort of sense that there is something beyond us and I don't think we need to use the word "supernatural." I'm thinking of Iris Murdock's idea in, for example, The Sovereignty of Good which he tries to posit something which, though beyond us, nevertheless elicits a response to us. For example, in trying to articulate what the notion of good actually is. And it seems to me that science actually is extremely good at clarifying the relationship between the different levels of material order, but when it comes to questions of meaning or value, which might well include transcendent meanings, it actually doesn't really help us very much. And so I would want to suggest that actually science offers us one level of explanation of the way things are, but it does not prevent us from adding extra levels of meaning on top of that. And it seems to me that that is one of the reasons why one can talk about the dynamic interaction between science and religion because they are certainly engaging the same reality, but they're offering different perspectives or different levels of engagement of that same thing.
CROMARTIE: Professor McGrath, here's the next question. You said that acts of violence in the name of God come from the fringes of religion, but God has ordered many acts of violence, for instance, in the Old Testament that killed thousands. Is God on the fringe of his own religion?
CROMARTIE: You have a response to that?
HITCHENS: I think it should stand alone. No, next, I would say.
CROMARTIE: Professor McGrath, here's the next question: you said that acts of violence in the name of God ceom from the fringes of religion. God has ordered many acts of violence, for instance in the Old Testament, that killed thousands. Is God on the fringe of His own religion?
McGRATH: Well clearly the way that question is phrased, actually, in effect, answers itself. I would not wish to set out quite like that and therefore I'd like to try and offer an answer which goes like this: I'm a Christian, and, obviously, I read the Old Testament and one of the questions is how on earth do I make sense of those passages which seem to, at least on the face of it, authorize acts of killing and so on which I personally find very, very disagreeable. And for me as a Christian, as I was saying, a fundamental theme here is that Christ is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. In other words, not simply that he brings to fulfillment their intentions, but that in some way he is authorized to show us what these are really meant to be like. In other words, that there are other interpretations, but these are relativized or placed to one side because of who Jesus is and what he did. And, therefore, I would want to look at the Old Testament through this lens and say that I believe it allows us to look at these passages and challenge the most natural interpretations. For me one of the great themes of Christian history is the idea that—what I call progressive revelation, that we gain a firmer understanding of what God is like, a firmer understanding of what God is like as time goes on and above all, for example, through the revelation of Christ and, again, whether you're a Protestant or a Catholic, you might talk about the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit or indeed continued reflection on the part of the church, but the engagement of the scripture is dynamic and ongoing. It's not really something that's been ended in the past.
CROMARTIE: Ok, for Mr. Hitchens: why would...
HITCHENS: Oh sorry, can I comment on that briefly, or...
CROMARTIE: Yes, you sure can.
HITCHENS: ...was I not invited to do so?
CROMARTIE: Please do so.
HITCHENS: Don't let me—well, I mean some of the early Christian church fathers I think, you'll correct me if I'm wrong, I think Marcian was among them, did contemplate starting a movement that was just basically Christian, based on what was understood or believed about the apparent, very opaque, brief life of Jesus of Nazareth and not inherit, not forced upon themselves, as St. Paul had suggested, the ghastly, gruesome Jewish books of the Old Testament—to start again. I think they might have done better to do that because, having decided that they inherit all of that, they do inherit, in particular, the most wicked and immoral doctrine of the lot which is original sin in Adam and the expiation by the sacrifice of children, human sacrifice of children, than which I don't think any morally normal person can think of anything more repulsive. So that it is, I'm afraid, innate that there is to be cruelty and violence and fantacism in the religion and the responsibility is not expiable. Bizarrely—I mean many people think, well, the Old Testament, it's true it's full of blood letting, it recommends genocide, extermination, slavery and all the dispossession, all of these things. The New Testament is more meek and mild. I've given you my comment on that, it's the first time that hell is mentioned, but it is in the Christian version that another called different kind of immorality is proposed, the worst kind of immorality yet, which is the wicked idea of non-resistance to evil and the deranged idea that we should love our enemies. Nothing, nothing could be more suicidal and immoral than that. We have to defend ourselves and our children and our civilization from our enemies. We have to learn to educate ourselves in a cold, steady dislike of them and a determination to encompass their destruction. Who here heard anyone after September the 11th in holy orders actually say, oh, well we must turn, learn to love these people. Did they dare say that then; of course not. They saw the emptiness and the futility and the immorality of what they would have been caught saying if they even tried it. We have to bear all this stuff in mind. This is not moral teaching at all. We have to survive our enemies, we have to learn to destroy them, especially because they, too, are motivated by the hectic, maniacal ideas of monotheism which really seeks and yearns for the destruction of our planet and the end of days. That's why it's not moral. That's why we have to outgrow it and defeat it.
CROMARTIE: I have a feeling you want to comment.
McGRATH: Well I'd like to comment. First of all, I do not think that the principle of trying to love your enemies leads to these things at all. I think if anything it leads to the obviation of violence. It does not mean we have to ignore moral issues. It means that we see these people as human beings, as someone who, in effect...
McGRATHE: ...bears the same flesh and blood as us.
HITCHENS: Fellow primates.
McGRATH: And it may mean that we want to try and resolve the issue saying we believe you are wrong, but it's also trying to avoid dehumanization. And it seems to me this really is a very significant question I'd like to pursue. I mean I may have misunderstood you, but what you seemed to be proposing is to see your enemies in dehumanized form and for me as a Christian, I could not do that because I have to see even my enemies as those who God has made and loved and, therefore, even though I may dislike them intensely, I have to show that love and compassion towards them and see them as human beings, not as the other, the enemy. I think really there's more to this idea than you suggest.
HITCHENS: There's no need to dehumanize people who are set on dehumanizing themselves and on the murder of others and on a cult of death. There's no need to dehumanize them. They’ve done all that for themselves.
McGRATH: But would you...
HITCHENS: Like someone once accused me of trying to assassinate his character and I said "No, your character committed suicide a long time ago." They've done the dehumanizing work for us, thanks, and they are fellow primates. Of course there's no question of redefining them as another species, but there is a very important question of whether we intend to assert our own values as superior to theirs and is worth defending against them. And Christianity with the sickly relativism that you've stressed so often this evening disarms us for this very important struggle, that's why the Arch Bishop of Canterbury is this evening groveling at the feet of the mullahs in Iran saying we should leave them alone and let's try not to hurt their feelings. As he groveled at the feet of Saddam Hussein, as actually every Christian church has been doing in the recent past saying well, you know, faith is better than no faith. Any faith is better than none. They all agreed to condemn Solomon Rushdie for blasphemy rather than the people who tried to kill him for money for writing a novel, for example. They all condemned the Danish cartoons because blasphemy against any faith is an offense to all.
CROMARTIE: Can I interrupt you here?
HITCHENS: Ok? Well this is serious, ladies and gentlmen because this stuff could kill you, ok?
CROMARTIE: Yes, Christopher, I've heard you, yourself, at one of my own conferences expound at great length at the Christian just war tradition. You seemed to have left that whole rich tradition out of what you just commented on.
HITCHENS: Yeah, but I think the Christian just war tradition is a nonsensical tautology. It says that you can only go to war when you're sure you're in the right, when you're sure you can win, when you're sure that the violence is going to be proportional, and so on. You can't know any of this, Aquinas couldn't have known it, nor could the later thinkers about it like Grotius. They couldn't have known, they said, "Wouldn't it be nice?" It's just wishful thinking again. I know a just war when I see one. And we're engaged in one now. And our faith-based forces are of no—are about as much use as the Pope's balls in this struggle, ok?
CROMARTIE: Well we are getting a little off course here, but...
HITCHENS: I know.
CROMARTIE: I had a feeling it might come up.
HITCHENS: I wanted this to come up.
CROMARTIE: You know, we've actually gone overtime and I feel like we can stay until about ten o'clock, but...
HITCHENS: I'm not in a hurry. My mission statement is I won't go until—if anyone can claim that I didn't answer a question. So, I'll be on...
CROMARTIE: There are a lot of people here.
HITCHENS: I'll be on the steps outside having a smoke and a miniature.
CROMARTIE: We were going to go fifteen minutes over.
HITCHENS: There's one more?
CROMARTIE: [To McGrath] Well it was for you, but I'll let you comment on this and we'll let Professor McGrath make some final comments. I think we can be in agreement we should do this again. I think we just got started. Would you both be agreeable to that?
CROMARTIE: [To the audience] You all would back, wouldn't you?
HITCHENS: [Gesturing to the front row] That's my daughter sitting there
CROMARTIE: Why would, Mr. Hitchens, why would scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe obviate the existence of God?
HITCHENS: Well they don't in and of themselves, but I just would submit—I really will be quick this time and I know I've been a little verbose up until now—the likelihood that what Edwin Hubblesaw through that telescope—the red light escaping at speeds that none of us here are really capable of imagining towards the ultimate expansion and collapse of the universe and the heat death—that all that happened so we could be sitting here is to me, in the very, very highest degree, improbable. That a process of evolution by natural selection just on our own tiny little planet which in its own tiny little solar system is the only one on which life can be supported, everywhere else just in our little system, all the other rocks are either much too hot or much too cold to support life as is much of our planet which we know has for a long time been, not recently either, on a climatic knife edge and which is still cooling, only one, and on this planet, 99.8% of every species that ever evolved died out. This is an extraordinary way I think to make sure that Homo sapiens comes to Georgetown. It is the, only the most extraordinarily self-centered species, could imagine that all this was going on for our sake, that's why I don't like people saying that their religious faith is modest or humble. It's the reverse. It's unbelievably solipsistic and that's why you get people apparently abject, much too abject for my taste like Mother Teresa. "Oh, I'm so humbled I can hardly bother to feed myself, but out of my way because I'm on a mission from God." No, this is arrogance, as a matter of fact, and it claims to know what it cannot know. I could say that Einstein was right when he said the miracle is—of the natural order—the miracle is there are no miracles. Understand this paradox. The natural order doesn't interrupt itself; the sun doesn't stand still at midday; God doesn't catch a child as a kid falls out of a window or heal lepers around him and none of that ever happens. The miracle is there's a force that holds it altogether that's consistent and unvarying. That's wonderful. Okay. He may show there's a mind somewhere in the universe, but to say we know what that mind is, to move from the deist position to the theist one, we know what God wants us to eat or not eat, we know in what positions he wants us to make love or with whom. We know his instructions on—is an unbelievable piece of conceit and in my opinion it's the reason why, I may be a very poor spokesman for my side of this argument, but I think anyone that who thinks about it has to vote that given the amount of uncertainty that we have and given how much we now know, how much more we know about how little we know (the definition of education in our civilization) the only people who have to lose in this argument are those who say they do know and who claim, "Yes, I do know what God wants, I do think He sent His son, I do think there was a resurrection, I do think there's salvation," claiming to know things they cannot conceivably know. I mean to put it differently in a mild way, if Dr. McGrath has such extraordinary sources of information as the ones he's claimed to have available to him, I can't understand why he's only occupying a chair at Oxford University.
McGRATH: Well, if I could respond to that.
HITCHENS: You should be, with the knowledge you've got, you should be a real mensch. And I'm afraid you don't know any more than I do about whether there was ever a Jesus of Nazareth, a resurrection, a miracle, a virgin birth or anything. You couldn't know any more than I do, you can't. You just claim that you do. I'm afraid that means, I think, that you lose this round.
McGRATH: Well, if I could respond. To deal with the first point before we came on to that second one, I don't think it's all solipsistic to say let's reflect on why we are here, let's reflect on why there is something rather than nothing. It's to ask a very important question about how the universe came into being. Why is there something rather than nothing? I mean for Wittgenstein that was a hugely important question and it seems to me to be entirely right to answer that question, or at least to try and answer it. On my own status, I mean, I appreciate very much the compliment you pay, but I'm simply making the point that all of us are interpreters of what we observe. I made it very, very clear I was not making any claims to special knowledge, I was looking at what I saw, what others say. I interpreted it in this way. I claim no privilege. I say it is my judgment that this is the best explanation and it means this, and I'm open to challenge on this, as you have challenged me, but I am not claiming anything special. I'm saying there are public events there, they are open to interpretation, as they were at the time, and the issue really is what is the best explanation of those. And I think that is a legitimate debate. I've made it very clear what my conclusion is. I made it clear it is a matter of faith and I cannot prove this, but I'm also suggesting that whatever judgments we make on this is actually a matter of faith and therefore while I'm very happy to be challenged on this, I think I'm still entitled to say that this seems to me to be the best way of making sense of it and live my life out on its basis.
CROMARTIE: Thank you.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.
That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.
Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.
As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...) Resolve to build up Mr. Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith.
[Introduction by Google staffer]
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 or so of an hour together so I’ll try and break the rule of a lifetime and be terse. And, 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 rather 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 I thought 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 yellow and black sign black sign that you see from the airport that says, just "Jesus," a word I have used myself, and a name I know but put 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 a 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've 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 have been 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 many 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 as sure 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 can 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 of irrelevance that we might otherwise have. 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 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, the 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—Smerdyakov, 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 in Egypt or the exile or the wandering in 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 that 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 is kosher at all? They’re all forbidden. I don’t think so. I think, I think we can, actually 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 in 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, that 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're also made in the image of God which makes the image of God question rather problematic, does it not? Or whether 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 claims 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. I hope 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 definition of a dictatorship, can convict you for what you think and 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 to you is this, who wishes that that were true? Who wants to lead 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 am 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 fifteen 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 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. Out of the Christian and Muslim one, you cannot. This is the wish to be a slave. And in my view, it’s poisonous of human relations. Now, I’ve already 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 it’s true 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, their property, enslave their women, kill their children, and commit genocide, rape, ethnic cleansing and forcible theft of land. That’s what the Book of Exodus described happening, the full destruction of the tribes. It's very fortunate that Dr. King only 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 all of his audience had ever really 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 and non-believing friends, the people like famous black secularists like Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and others, the men that actually did organize the march on Washington;,which leads me to my third observation which is this: It’s a challenge I've made now in debates with rabbis, with priests of all Christian stripes, with imams. Once with a—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 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 a person not of faith, a person of no faith. You have to do that. Not so far and I’ve done it at quite a high level with the religious, no takers. No one's 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? Interesting to realize how true that is and how much truerit'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—Judeo-Christian broadcaster who quite often rather generously has me on his 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've 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. And 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'd written to him for fear of persecution. By the way, who do you think the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut were afraid of being persecuted by? Anyone knows?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: The Methodists?
HITCHENS: No, the Congregationalists of Danbury, Connecticut. People forget what it used to be like, see how the Christians loved each other, how they've tried to repeat the European pattern 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 questioners 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Thank you for coming to Google.
HITCHENS: It’s my honor.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: So you make it sound really, really simple. I mean you have explanations for everything.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: And I agree with a lot of your arguments and, you know, I lived in, you know like, a socialist country. I mean, I come from Croatia so I, you know, 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 that part, like, you know, like this is something that these people want so...
HITCHENS: Did you say you were Croatska, Croatian?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Yes, yes.
HITCHENS: Yeah. Well, 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...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Yes.
HITCHENS: ...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 are 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 this just broke down the door, dogs, torches, rubber truncheons, the lot. 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. 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, now I have to mention him. There’s no other standard 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 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 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 gravitate towards faith because they want someone to, if you like, look after them. The whole idea of a heavenly father, for example, is built up on this. 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's in his hands. This is implicitly totalitarian. That’s what I mean. But I think it'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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I understand better now but it's not...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: ...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 or anything but, you know, like, differentiating people by their love towards freedom and I'll end with that?
HITCHENS: No, I’m certain that the same feelings are innate in all people. And that one day there will be a North Korean edition of 1984, and it will be a huge bestseller there.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Uh-huh.
HITCHENS: I am as sure of that as I can be of anything. Though, at the moment, it’s hard to imagine that 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: To follow up to on this fear of freedom and there is an innate idea, sorry to beat that horse, but 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 Sartre 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. 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 religion be replaced by so to fulfill this natural need?
HITCHENS: Yeah. Well, I would say that emancipating oneself 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 when the person thinks they can't take anymore humiliation, they're told, ah, 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 beauties 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, if you insist, though 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, "I'm only 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—actually it’d be unlikely the last one but that’s possible. Okay, but 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 MEMBER 4: 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?
HITCHENS: Sorry. Yes, I've read a lot of Mr. Clemens on religion.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Yes. That seemed a sort of a definitive work on the hierarchy structure of a more standard religion.
HITCHENS: Yes. By the way, you can't read too much Twain, ladies and gentlemen, on the subject. And 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 MEMBER 4: And my longer question which hopefully won't choke you up. I actually have several friends who are very well-educated, in some cases in the sciences, who became religious late in life. They had 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?
HITCHENS: Yes, I suppose I could speculate, but that’s all I would be doing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Of course.
HITCHENS: 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 poor 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 as 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 MEMBER 4: In what sense?
HITCHENS: John Wayne played the Roman centurion in one of the films about the crucifixion?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I don’t believe I've seen that one.
HITCHENS: 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, under the waters, "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 cue again the rain, thunder, the veil of the temple splits in twain, earthquakes, you know, it's all happening and Wayne says, "Aw, truly, this was the son of God."
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: 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?
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 pagans and polytheists 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 MEMBER 6: On an article, I believe it was in Slate 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."
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: 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?
HITCHENS: Well, I was thinking of saying 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 of this kind of thing. 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 a big gathering where Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 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 been 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 MEMBER 7: 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, you know, have Hubble telescopes and microscopes, the burning bush is not as interesting. And the other thing you said is that, you know, religion kind of feeds into, you know, innate human nature for, you know, being told what to do or not having as much freedom. Well, in the United States, you 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 inventing—not inventing but really espousing the philosophy of freedom and individuality and trying to, you know, 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 are leaders are, you know, to a great degree. So how do you explain, like, that contradiction?
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 probably 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 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'd be completely 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 you 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, only 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—ask 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 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 that 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 grant 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 MEMBER 7: 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.
HITCHENS: Alright. I'll 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 when they say where they’re from. "Oh you’re from Kansas, that’s the place where…" they don’t like that. It was the same with the confederate flag issue, quite apart from the racism. A lot of people didn’t want to come from a state that had a confederate battle flag on its [indecipherable]. 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 impress people to the point where they feel it must—can’t be opposed.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: Thank you for coming.
HITCHENS: Thanks for having me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: I think you already answered one of my questions regarding organizing a larger effort. So separate from that, I wanted to get just some comments and thoughts based upon the 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...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: ...and a 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...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: ...to further some sort of movement, if there may be one.
HITCHEN: 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 not a 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 Randi, 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, point out to you 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.” It’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 MEMBER 9: 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 in his case, he attacked specific religious leaders whereas you attack religion itself. And, I just find that interesting…
HITCHENS: No, our resemblances are often pointed out.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 9: 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 another 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?
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 a 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 actually 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, and 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 experiment I'd like to run. I don’t think that's going to end up with a gulag.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: Hi. Thank you for coming.
HITCHENS: Thank you for having me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: 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.
HITCHENS: I was wondering what you'd done with your chicks here I must say.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: We're 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?
HITCHENS: Well, I’d say it wouldn't prove much. I mean, the—it'd be 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, 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: This is true.
HITCHENS: 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: Sure. There seemed to be...
HITCHENS: Of the genital mutilation community the same can be said.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: I've 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.
HITCHENS: It takes a lot to make me cry but you...See me afterwards, I mean...Look actually it’s what I said about if there's any who read, who read de Toqueville, On 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." Changed very easily. Go to another church instead. Wouldn't consider perhaps not going to one but it shows 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, 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 and expressed by the megachurches, the people who lead half transient lives don’t have very stable employment or residence who often are 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 you 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 you me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: Oh, it's my turn?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: Try to diverge a little from the immediate subjects. You've 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, 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.
HITCHENS: Well, there's no danger of you being impertinent so don’t worry about that. I've just returned from Guantanamo&mdashwell, 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: Um...
HITCHENS: You're suggesting there was a religious justification for the detention policy?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: 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 used by religious tyrants and demagogues down the centuries and this language comes up particularly strongly when justifying controversial actions such as Guantanamo Bay.
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. 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 MEMBER 11: "Emergency powers" and "extraordinary rendition" and other terms like this, to me, rather smack of secrecy jargon...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: ...at the same time used by preachers.
HITCHENS: Or by secular despots. I mean, 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 I mean 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. I mean 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 difficulty 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'll 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 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. Neither of these seems to be very attractive. This is as far as I’ve got now with my reasoning about it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: 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"...
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 MEMBER 11: Well, I feel I’ve taken up a little too much time now.
HITCHENS: A very welcome question, believe me.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: 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 its 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.
HITCHENS: Fair enough.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 12: Hi. Thank you very much for coming. I was—just had 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. These are—those were three things that formed communities that maybe could be 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.
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 if—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 about that. We don’t know the same about, even the devotional painters, we don’t know that 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 cult of Pallas Athena. I no longer 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 sale 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 MEMBER 12: 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.
HITCHENS: Well, no, then let me add—I wanted to say a bit more of this when I was speaking first. I think that the human need for the transcendent or 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 or the feeling of war and love at the same time has had extraordinary consequences for many people, say, 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 12: Yes.
HITCHENS: You’re not glimpsing anything but nature from that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 12: Thank you. Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: 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? And these bases...
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: ...what they’d like to do is to get these people to feel like they’re being attacked. And in a 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, right? How do you make that separation?
HITCHENS: Well, I think my answer’s been anticipated perhaps.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: Right.
HITCHENS: If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: Right.
HITCHENS: I'm very depressed however in this country you can be told "That’s offensive!" as if those two words constitute an argument or a 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.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: Right. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Hello. 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.
HITCHENS: How very nice of you to do that.