Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hitchens vs. Kresta, Ave Maria Radio

  • Christopher Hitchens vs. Al Kresta: god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
  • April 6, 2009, Ave Maria Radio

    KRESTA: Good afternoon, I'm Al Kresta. Joining me right now, Mr. Christopher Hitchens, noted writer and journalist, well over ten books to his credit as well as multiple articles and pamphlets. I think it's fair to say that most of his work, or at least his most recent work, has presupposed the non-existence of God. And recently he's made quite a specialty of cutting through, undermining, ripping the mask off religion in all of its guises and claiming that God is simply not as advertised. Christopher, it's good to have you with me.

    HITCHENS: It's very nice of you to invite me.

    KRESTA: god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Really? Crocheting? Italian food?

    HITCHENS: Aerobic dancing.

    KRESTA: Aerobic dancing.

    HITCHENS: Tantric sex, chess...

    KRESTA: You don't believe that.

    HITCHENS: Yeah, the lot. Because it poisons the well, you see. I mean, it begins by saying that we're such pathetic, guilty serfs and worms that without supernatural permission from a dictator, we can't—we wouldn't be able to tell right from wrong. So everything we might like to do, from chess to tantric sex, is overshadowed by this simple fact of religion trying to say, "You're not worthy. You are not worthy."

    KRESTA: We'll come back to that, we'll come back to that. Because I know, for some reason, that is a central part of your thesis.

    HITCHENS: It's also a very snappy subtitle.

    KRESTA: Yeah I know, publishers tend to assign subtitles.

    HITCHENS: No, I assigned it.

    KRESTA: You got that?

    HITCHENS: It's designed to make people—it's precisely designed to make people ask the question that you just did.

    KRESTA: Well, and that's the answer you want to give, that the best you can do is to say, "Well, I simply mean it poisons the well. Italian food is fine whether or not God exists."

    HITCHENS: Yes. But better still when you've emancipated yourself from the idea that He does.

    KRESTA: You believe that emancipation from religion is the greatest emancipation of all?

    HITCHENS: I think it's the sine qua non. I think it's the necessary emancipation, the one on which all others are predicated. Yeah, you can't be free if you're constantly afraid that you're not pleasing someone who can't be pleased.

    KRESTA: Well...

    HITCHENS: Someone whose verdicts can't be disputed and someone whose reign is forever. It's a big brother, the ultimate totalitarianism. And you can't be responsible...

    KRESTA: I know that you want to get to the totalitarian god which, really, we will get to because that's—that and vicarious redemption...

    HITCHENS: My impression was we just arrived there.

    KRESTA: Well, because—look, you wrote a book. You put something on the table. I'm looking at it. I'm going in the direction I want to go on it.

    HITCHENS: You ask the questions.

    KRESTA: You got the chance in writing the book.

    HITCHENS: You ask the questions.

    KRESTA: So let's come back to this question of religion. What do you mean by "religion" because you throw in there voodoo, the Pope, fear-ridden peasants of Antiquity, suicide bombers, Martin Luther King, Jr., you even throw Joseph Stalin and snake handlers and Marian apparitions in there.

    HITCHENS: Yeah.

    KRESTA: And you take the massive field of religion and you dismiss it in toto. This would be like somebody taking the field of paleontology, dismissing that in toto because it's had numerous false starts or misleading hypotheses or...

    HITCHENS: Oh no, it wouldn't be like that at all.

    KRESTA: ...corrupt practitioners or outright fossil frauds. I mean, why not write a book, something like: Animals are Not Great: How Zoology Poisons Everything?

    HITCHENS: Because it wouldn't be comparing like with like.

    KRESTA: Well, tell me why.

    HITCHENS: By the way, thank you for your attention to the book, I mean you obviously have taken care. I mean all of those examples have one thing in common, whereas the Piltdown fraud and the work of Stephen Jay Gould have nothing in common, that one of them is the negation of the other. Religion—all of these, from stupid Marian apparitions to voodoo to Scientology to Mormonism all have the same thing in common which is a claim to a supernatural revelation or authority. And I make the simple observation that there isn't a supernatural dimension to which appeals can be made, that no primate can claim to be better than other primates because they're acting with divine authority, they are able to interpret God's will and that the natural world is wonderful enough. So I'm afraid the comparisons you made won't stand up.

    KRESTA: Well, the natural world is wonderful enough in that it's a created world and that's where you and I disagree. But you gotta make...

    HITCHENS: You'd have to agree that even if you could—even if it could be proven that it wasn't created, which I admit it cannot be proven, can't be absolutely, conclusively demonstrated, but suppose it could, you wouldn't find it any less wonderful, would you?

    KRESTA: No. I would find its end less wonderful and we can come back to that later.

    HITCHENS: Ah, the end.

    KRESTA: Yes, because that's critical.

    HITCHENS: Yes it is.

    KRESTA: Because aims and teleology are important. You even believe that, right?

    HITCHENS: Very much so.

    KRESTA: Ok, good. We'll come back to it then. But you have to do a lot of special pleading in the book. I mean, Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, a Baptist pastor, who is quite explicit about his Christian motivation and the Sermon on the Mount and deriving his non-violence from Ghandi, you've gotta write him off as motivated more by humanistic or secular considerations. And Stalin, who was an explicit atheist and governed according to that militant atheism, you've got to write off as religious. How do you do that?

    HITCHENS: Well in reverse order: Stalin, who was a seminarian of the Orthodox Church, I don't believe ever was an atheist. He certainly always kept the Orthodox Church on his side. He always maintained and appointed—helped appoint bishops. He always appealed to the Orthodox Church as far a possible also he tried to emulate the czar in claiming to be more than merely a material leader, a leader with miraculous powers who was supposed to be thanked for all the benefits he brought to the people, who could detect heresy hunts and witch hunts, who replicated all the apparatus of czarism and Russian Orthodoxy and you will now—you laugh, but...

    KRESTA: Well, you're taking—you're taking...

    HITCHENS: You laugh, but I direct you to a recent, very important article (you can get it off the website of the Weekly Standard) about the way the same church has just become (the Russian Orthodox Church) the official church of Vladimir Putin's new dictatorship in Russia. That's fairly well known. What people don't know is it's producing new icons to appeal to the extreme authoritarian nationalism and chauvinism of the Putin regime and these icons show Joseph Stalin—Russian Orthodox icons shows Stalin with a halo around his head. You can buy them. They're selling them.

    KRESTA: You know, from a Christian...

    HITCHENS: I mean, Stalinism—no, I have no distinction in describing Stalinism as a religion.

    KRESTA: From a Christian point of view—yes, that's exactly right and this is what we fear when you in fact take God out of the equation, when you do not believe that there's a...

    HITCHENS: You're accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of taking God out of the equation?

    KRESTA: Whoah, whoah, whoah—not when you believe that there's not a legitimate higher being then, of course, you end up with God surrogates. That's what Stalin did. Stalin created the state as a surrogate.

    HITCHENS: Excuse me, are you accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of taking God out of the equation? They're the ones who produced these icons.

    KRESTA: No, we're not talking about the icons, we're talking about Stalin, we're talk about Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor who you write off as a humanist and Stalin, who's an atheist (you deny that, but most people would agree that he's an atheist)...

    HITCHENS: Maybe most people would but most people know less about is than I do. Have we finished with Stalin because it's—he's now the property of the Russian Orthodox Church so if you want him a secular figure you're entitled to try.

    KRESTA: Let me get this—I want to make sure I have this on the record, Christopher:

    HITCHENS: Yes.

    KRESTA: You're saying that Stalin is not a secular figure.

    HITCHENS: Absolutely. I'm saying Stalinism is, and was, a religion and is now recognized as such by the Russian Orthodox Church.

    KRESTA: Well, we'll come back—we won't be able to come to that today.

    HITCHENS: Alright, but I think it might be something interesting for your listeners to follow up on. They'll find that I'm right. Now on the case of Dr. King what I say is that...

    KRESTA: I'm sure that's not true, but go ahead.

    HITCHENS: Well, I assure you that it is. In the case of Dr. King what I say is that nothing that he argued for, in other words, the emancipation of black Americans, had not been argued earlier and better by black secular forces, that his model was actually not the Sermon on the Mount, it was more the Exodus story and I said what a good thing it was he wasn't really using the Exodus story because that would've entitled his tribe, in the search for its promised land, to kill everyone who got in its way, exterminate them, enslave them, and destroy their property, as the Exodus story does entitle them to do, though, as we're also fortunate enough to know now, the Exodus story is wholly made up, and...

    KRESTA: No, in fact we don't know that.

    HITCHENS: ...thankfully for humanity, never took place.

    KRESTA: Egyptologists like Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier have not come to accept the Exodus story.

    HITCHENS: The ones with the strongest archaeological motive for believing it (the Israeli archaeologists) have concluded that there's no evidence that it ever happened at all.

    KRESTA: No, this is—again, you're...

    HITCHENS: It's not mentioned anywhere in the records of the Pharaonic empire.

    KRESTA: No...

    HITCHENS: We'll see. I mean, there's no—shall we say there's absolutely no evidence to say that it did, which, in my opinion, means that it's probably—it's fair enough to say that it didn't.

    KRESTA: Well, you've got [indecipherable]...

    HITCHENS: That doesn't affect the Dr. King story.

    KRESTA: Well, it does because you're making the claim that King drew upon the Exodus story which has no historical foundation. Now, why is that significant to you?

    HITCHENS: Because I think it's good of him that he only drew upon it, so to speak, metaphorically, not literally, that he says it's a story of a peoples' passage and journey to liberation. That's fine. But if he had followed what the story actually says, the massacre of the Canaanites, the Amalekites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, and so on and so on, it wouldn't be the pretty story that we now teach to school children about the civil rights movement. More important to me is this: that the march on Washington, the original one, the original idea was during the Roosevelt administration and for the subsequent ones, was the work of A. Philip Randolph, the great black trade union leader and secularist and Bayard Rustin, the great black organizer and socialist—secular socialist. These people have been completely written out of the American record. They're not taught at all, tremendous though their story was.

    KRESTA: No, that's not true. I know—you and I both knew the Bayard Rustin story.

    HITCHENS: You may know...

    KRESTA: Their stories show up in the biographies all the time.

    HITCHENS: You may know about them but you'll have to admit that they're not any longer given the credit...

    KRESTA: They don't occupy the same place in the public imagination as King. And one of the reasons he occupies such a place in the American imagination is, in fact, because of his spiritual motivation. That is something that the American people resonate with and...

    HITCHENS: Well, that's had one very bad consequence that I point to.

    KRESTA: Well, let me put it this way: You're the one who's making the more eccentric claim here. The fact is that people as different as Plato and Bono and Denzel and George Washington have believed in some kind of higher power or divinity. You can take a look at these people and their heterodoxy, you can take a look at their orthodoxy and their piety or their impiety but what you're going to find is, whether you're dealing with Dante or Babe Ruth or Harriet Beecher Stowe or George W. Bush, you're going to find that all of them believe that they are not the measure of all things and they don't believe that the world is the end of all things and that's the reason—one of the reasons King has resonance with the American people. You have to put yourself in the position of denying what virtually everybody has some inkling of. You put yourself in the position of being the blind man at the aurora borealis or something. But you're somehow not able to see or hear what obviously most of the human race has picked up on.

    HITCHENS: Now, any fair-minded person who reads my section on Dr. King—I'm not quite done with him yet—will see that I give him more, perhaps than you, if by way of his due in praise. But I simply say that there's no need for any spiritual assumption to call for what he called for. What he called for had not only been called for before but the groundwork for it had been laid before by people who were not ministers and didn't use religious rhetoric. I had a corollary—not a corollary but a consequence to this, the widespread acceptance of his piety and spirituality which is that ever since then, any black clergyman who can—any fraud, who can put the word "reverend" in front of his name, from Jackson to Sharpton, has been accepted, usually as much by white media as by actual black Americans, as being the successor to King because they must be, they claim to be spiritual. This has done enormous damage to black America and to society in general. It leads to people like Jeremiah Wright.

    KRESTA: Yeah, we...

    HITCHENS: And if you're going to accept the one you have to accept the other.

    KRESTA: No.

    HITCHENS: And why didn't you mention any of the nutcases and frauds and evil people who also believe that man wasn't the measure of all things and that the supernatural was the critical one.

    KRESTA: Because I believe that human beings are flawed, because I think human beings come in all kinds of packages, and because I don't think you can take a field like religion and just assume that it is a twisted, distorted field. I just—I think that is making the kind of generalization—your book is full of these overstatements and I know—I can only assume that you intended it that way. But let me ask you this, because on the same...

    HITCHENS: You're sounding very peevish suddenly.

    KRESTA: I don't mean to be peevish...

    HITCHENS: Almost querulous.

    KRESTA: Look, you—this question comes from The Brothers Karamazov...

    HITCHENS: Yes.

    KRESTA: ...and you ask it, and I'm not going to read the whole thing, but let me ask you this:

    HITCHENS: I believe I know the question.

    KRESTA: (Yes, I think you do.) If you could build a society which you—which would give people supreme happiness and peace but had to achieve it by torturing just one little child, would you, Christopher Hitchens, do that?

    HITCHENS: My answer to the question is "no," and my other answer to the question also is I wish that a refusal like that was as easy. I mean, it's a very graphic way, that's why I put it in the book, of suggesting ends and means. It's like the question that Ian Forrester asked at one point: If you had to choose between betraying your country and your friends, which would you do? You never get the choice, as a matter of fact.

    KRESTA: But it does illustrate...

    HITCHENS: It's a good way of training the mind up to a point (this sort of speculation) but it tends to break down because in the real world conditions like that don't obtain and choices like that are not as, unfortunately, clear-cut.

    KRESTA: I know, but the best way we prepare for the real world is through these thought experiments.

    HITCHENS: Yes.

    KRESTA: So...

    HITCHENS: If you thought you could save all future children from being tortured by torturing only just one, how quickly would you say, "Ok, I'd never do that." I mean, you might end up saying, "Ok, bring on the pincers. Where's the little girl?" But you probably wouldn't.

    KRESTA: No.

    HITCHENS: And then the question is, "Well, should you?"

    KRESTA: Yeah. But these are the questions you want to have...

    HITCHENS: The real question is are there such things as moral absolutes?

    KRESTA: ...these are the questions you want to have thought through before you're faced with this kind of moral dilemma, right? Because in the middle of—it's like...

    HITCHENS: It can be good to have some dress rehearsals but very often these things come up unheralded.

    KRESTA: Yeah, life has that quality, I agree. So, let me ask you this then: Do you believe in universal moral truths that are objectively known? Because it seems to me that's what you're appealing to.

    HITCHENS: Yes, I'm willing to debate it until the cows come home and, "I'm not sure," is the answer to that. I mean I'll give you my favorite example, which is the one that most people accept most willingly, is the so-called Golden Rule that seems to have occurred in all societies and it certainly predates Jesus and it's in Rabbi Hillel and it's in The Analects of Confucius in some form: Don't do to another person what you would find repulsive to be done to yourself. It's universally intelligible and, you know, rather nice but fatally flawed because it's only as good as the person saying. In other words, I shouldn't want done to Charles Manson anything I wouldn't want done to myself? Excuse me, that's nonsense. Surely some people deserve harsh treatment that I don't feel I deserve myself. They chose—ok, let's take some other biblical rules: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Everyone sees the fatal flaw in that: the world would end up blind and toothless. On the other hand, in the New Testament it says only if you're without sin should you should be casting any stones. (That verse turns out to be added to the Bible very much later than the Gospel in which it appears but still it's an immoral—it could be an immoral injunction because, by that standard, you wouldn't be able to arrest Charles Manson because you would yourself have been a sinner.)

    KRESTA: Yes but do you...

    HITCHENS: So what I'm saying is—as well as doing a bit of thought experiment for our benefit and the benefit of the audience—religion doesn't get you any nearer to moral, objective absolute...

    KRESTA: No, I disagree.

    HITCHENS: ...than secular speculations on morality and law can do.

    KRESTA: I disagree because having Manson executed—you're believing that the basis for morality is self-interest, and...

    HITCHENS: No, no, I don't say that.

    KRESTA: ...consequently somebody like Manson would not want to be executed. So, we wouldn't be able to say, "Let's do onto Manson as we would do onto ourselves," because if we were Charles Manson, we wouldn't want to be executed.

    HICHENS: Don't be so sure...

    KRESTA: But we have appeals to justice here. Justice transcends my self-interest.

    HITCHENS: No, that's completely incoherent, I'm sorry. First, I don't say that morality is based on self-interest, I say it's based on human solidarity.

    KRESTA: Well, so did Richard Wagner, by the way.

    HITCHENS: That's a nexus of mutually. It's not—of course it has the element of self-interest that says, "I hope that if I act as if I'm a brother or sister of someone and have duties and responsibilities, that they'll do the same for me." That's not just self-interest, though. The second is, don't be at all so sure that people like Manson don't want to be punished. I don't know about executed, but when he turned up for his parole hearing the first time he was given one, he took care to cut a swastika into the middle of his forehead as if to say to the parole board, "I don't think I'm quite ready to be let out yet."

    KRESTA: Well, I—look...

    HITCHENS: He seems to want to be punished.

    KRESTA: So what should we do? So should we punish him?

    HITCHENS: A lot of sadists do.

    KRESTA: Should we punish him and would punishing him be a violation of the Golden Rule?

    HITCHENS: No, it wouldn't, but the Golden Rule...

    KRESTA: But that's what you started out saying, that the Golden Rule is incoherent, it gives us no way of applying these things.

    HITCHENS: The Golden Rule is of no help in deciding this question.

    KRESTA: Well how is it not?

    HITCHENS: There is a way of deciding the question because you say, "I'll tell you one thing I know about Manson: I want him to be where he can't get near me or anyone I know."

    KRESTA: We're in agreement on that. Let's...

    HITCHENS: Good.

    KRESTA: You mentioned—let's go to—so the question to you was, "Do you believe in universal moral truths that are objectively known?" and your answer to that is, "Well, I'd like to debate that until the cows come home"...

    HITCHENS: Yeah, and I've given you—your listeners now know how I think about this and not what I think. So, that's much more useful to know, I think.

    KRESTA: Let me take it to the next step: How do you ground the objectivity of moral truths without reference to God?

    HITCHENS: Well how do you ground them with reference to God? It doesn't make it any easier if you refer it upward to a supernatural authority. You may be told, "Here's morality, it's obedience to my will."

    KRESTA: No, I'm not...

    HITCHENS: That's the religious definition, is obedience to God's will.

    KRESTA: No.

    HITCHENS: What if God tell you to go fly a plane into a skyscraper?

    KRESTA: No. You just—you do this throughout the book.

    HITCHENS: Yeah.

    KRESTA: And on the one hand I know that you got—you know, some of your best friends are Christians and yet you misrepresent your best friends' thinking on these matters. You know full well that Catholic moral teaching doesn't believe in this kind of "God will's decrees it, therefore it's good." You understand Catholic moral teaching believes that God created a good creation and that even those who don't believe in God can know moral truths and they can behave morally without believing in God. You know that.

    HITCHENS: I'm sorry, I don't like the tone of voice there. I don't need Catholic permission to be told I can be a good person even if I'm not one of them. What an insufferable way to talk.

    KRESTA: But you're critiquing...

    HITCHENS: How dare they talk like that.

    KRESTA: You're distorting Catholic teaching, Christopher.

    HITCHENS: How dare they talk like that.

    KRESTA: No, you're distorting Catholic teaching.

    HITCHENS: No, I'm just telling you that what you've just told me it is, which I'm perfectly well aware of, is an appalling piece of patronization.

    KRESTA: It's certainly not.

    HITCHENS: Excuse me, yes I do know right from wrong without permission from them.

    KRESTA: You know, that was the point.

    HITCHENS: And there's things that they think immoral that I wouldn't do under any temptation. (The wicked things that they think should be done.)

    KRESTA: The question is how to ground the objectivity of moral truth without reference to God.

    HITCHENS: Yes, and that remains a question whether there's a supernatural dimension or not. It's simply no—it doesn't add—you've advanced the argument not by one inch by saying, "Yes, you can ground it objectively if you submit to the idea of the divine." No, you haven't gotten anywhere near being objective by saying that.

    KRESTA: Well, the problem—you agree it's a serious problem?

    HITCHENS: I do, and it would be a serious problem for—it remains a serious problem whether you accept the existence of an intervening deity or not. The argument doesn't stop which ever of us wins that round. It goes on all the time: what are we to do, what are our duties to each other?

    KRESTA: Ok, so let me bring it back: What is your basis for determining moral truth? Or, actually, not only what is the basis for your determining moral truth but how can you demonstrate that those moral truths are objectively true?

    HITCHENS: I can't demonstrate...

    KRESTA: Because you want me to obey those rules.

    HITCHENS: I think that I would want to say is that I think there are certain injunction—moral injunctions that are universally valid. In other words, no society has ever been found, and this is true of society well before monotheism took root and spread, where things like murder and perjury and theft are other than condemned. That seems to be a common thing. Then there are other things you barely need to prohibit such as incest or cannibalism because societies or individuals that practice them simply will die out, they will destroy themselves. So there seems to be quite enough going on in the material world to establish a basis for human solidarity and for the prohibition of certain offenses quite without any reference to the supernatural. It satisfies me. It isn't completely satisfactory. It's a way of beginning and continuing the argument. You want to close the argument as if forever to say, "Now I know how to ground this,"...

    KRESTA: No what I want to say is you gotta have a ground...

    HITCHENS: Do societies with religious courts have a different experience of justice?

    KRESTA: If you don't have a ground for your—I mean, claiming that there's an objective basis for morality then what you leave it to is you leave it for the—each individual to decide this themselves. And it seems to me—or various societies themselves.

    HITCHENS: No you don't, because...

    KRESTA: You end up where Richard Rorty ended up.

    HITCHENS: No you don't, because...

    KRESTA: When he was asked if it was a good idea to exterminate nine million European Jews and then get the gypsies and homosexuals and Russians, he says, "Of course it wasn't a good idea." He said, "Well how would you justify not doing it if it was the free consensus of the German people?" And he said, "I don't know. I have no objection to offer." You're not comfortable with that.

    HITCHENS: No, certainly not. And anyway, it's not a matter of—you would never get to the stage where everyone would just do as they like because if that was the consequence you and I would not be having this conversation. If the human species was able to act like that it wouldn't be—we'd be another species. It's because everyone is constrained by their duties and responsibilities imposed by—called for by human solidarity that this occurs whether you're told to by God or not, and...

    KRESTA: Richard Wagner...

    HITCHENS: I know that because it occurs to me and I don't believe in God.

    KRESTA: Right, I understand. You don't have to believe in God to know...

    HITCHENS: I must add to your Rorty question that the mass exterminations in Europe were conducted by believing Christians.

    KRESTA: Yeah, well...

    HITCHENS: They were.

    KRESTA: Look, you're not going to tell me Himmler was a believing Christian.

    HITCHENS: I'm not sure—I don't know if he was or not.

    KRESTA: Where do you get...

    HITCHENS: In Paul Johnson's History of Christianity, which you wouldn't describe as an anti-Christian book...

    KRESTA: Very straightforward book...

    HITCHENS: Forty percent, I think he said, of the Waffen-SS, were confessing, believing Catholics.

    KRESTA: You could also—the resistence to Nazism was also very strong among believing Christians.

    HITCHENS: It was strongest among believing Communists, as a matter of fact.

    KRESTA: Where do you get...

    HITCHENS: That's a [indecipherable] historical fact.

    KRESTA: Where do you get the conviction that the human race would be better off without religion? Because in every place that we've seen militant atheism get political power, we've seen that the state becomes ultimate. That's something you don't want to see and that vacuum left by atheism leads to a deification of the state.

    HITCHENS: Well, I gave you my answer to that in the case of the religion of Stalinism.

    KRESTA: Gentlemen, I'm very sorry for the interruption. Mr. Kresta, we do have to move on. We have our next station waiting [indecipherable].

    HITCHENS: Oh I'm sorry about that.

    KRESTA: Christopher, thanks. Appreciate the time.

    HITCHENS: I only just got my trousers off and then I had to stop.

    KRESTA: I know. I wanted to get to your assertion that the existence of Jesus is highly questionable. Some other day we'll take to that one.

    HITCHENS: No, He isn't very questionable.

    KRESTA: Oh, well your book says it is. I'm Al Kresta.

    August 8, 2009: Kresta responds here
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