Monday, October 25, 2010

Hitchens vs. Hitchens, Pew Center

  • Christopher Hitchens vs. Peter Hitchens: Can Civilization Survive Without God?
  • October 12, 2010, Pew Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life

    [Read full transcript here and watch video highlights here]

    BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: If I could just follow up with one thing. You have—there's been a fairly public discussion of the fact that you have sometimes been offended but sometimes warmed by the fact that people are praying for you or thinking of you. I'm wondering if—I mean, I'd like to ask you to elaborate on that last statement about your contempt because in my reading of what you've said recently it seemed as if—that perhaps you were cheered a little bit or warmed by some expressions of belief.

    CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, you have the floor and you're insisting, so I'll—in spite of my reluctance—obviously expression of solidarity are very welcome and very touching to me and—in whatever form they take. I do resent, always have resented the idea that it should be—in some way be assumed that now you may be—now that you may be terrified, say, or miserable, or as it might be depressed, surely now would be a perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime. I've always thought this to be rather a repulsive mode of approach and there's a disgusting history of people either attempting to inflict deathbed conversions on people like Thomas Paine in their extremity or making up lies about it afterwards as they did about Charles Darwin and many others. That I find wholly contemptible. But it's only vestigially implied in my case. Surely I ought to think more about these things now than I would anyway? No, not at all. I've already thought about them a great deal, thanks all the same.

    PETER HITCHENS: Speaking for the religious side of the argument, I also think it would be quite grotesque to imagine that someone would have to get cancer to see the merits of religion. It's an absurd idea, I don't know why anyone imagines that it should be so.

    CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: [On morality] I think that we're probably doomed to some kind of relativism, or perhaps better say, approximation. I mean, who's going to tell me, "Here's a law that's absolutely true and will hold good for all time, and it's been proclaimed scripturally"? Well we might say, "Thou shalt not kill." I mean, it would be probably inevitable we'd have to start with that. But it doesn't say, "Thou shalt not kill," it says, "Thou shalt do no murder," and everybody knows that there's a real difficulty in deciding when killing is murder and that the situational ethics of this are very complicated but are common to all times and places. Different standards prevail at different times and places but that argument is an open-ended one and will remain so. I'm rather glad, as a matter of fact, from the point of both moral and intellectual and ethical exercise that you can't just tell someone one thing and that that's right and that's true for all time, there's nothing to argue about. That's why I object to the idea of commandments in the first place. Morality is not learned by orders, ok? It's acquired by experience, by moral suasion and by comparing and contrasting different ways of resolving these questions. There are thought crimes in the Ten Commandments. You're told you shouldn't even envy someone else's prosperity or property. Well, from a socialist point of view, that says, you know, you've got to just lump it if people are better off than you and from a capitalist and free enterprise point of view it says it's basically a crime to emulate—this whole spur of emulation and innovation is possibly a sin. And anyway, it's in the same list as murder as a crime, something you're thinking. Well I don't think that's an absolute moral truth at all. To the contrary, I think we'd be better off without it. So...


    CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: ...where do we get it? It's perfectly obvious that we happen to be, as other primates are, capable of and needing to make decisions about our common welfare as well as about our own ambition. We happen to be stuck with that.

    MODERATOR: We have about four more people I want to get in before we close. But Peter, you want to speak to that quickly? And then, I'm going to—I want everyone to be concise.

    PETER HITCHENS: Quickly, yes. The question of conscience, or what Sally referred to as the hard-wiring of the brain seems to me to be one of the most fascinating unexplored subjects in this matter and it seems to me to be very, very hard to come up with an atheistic explanation of conscience any more than you could have a compass without a magnetic north. If morality evolves then morality changes. Then the things of which we most strongly disapprove now could be things which are permitted later, in which case it's not really morality as far as I'm concerned. And who's evolving it? Under what—I love that advertisement they put, maybe it didn't happen here: "Microsoft Office has evolved," by which they meant we've gone back and tried to make it a bit better than it was and a bit more like what Apple does. That doesn't seem to me to be evolution...


    PETER HITCHENS: generally understood. But the word does seem to have a remarkable number of meanings. But if it evolves then it alters, and if it alters, it's not morality and therefore we can't rely upon it and if the magnetic north kept shifting then it would be very difficult to steer your boat or your plane across the Atlantic.

    QUESTIONER: Well gentlemen, do you need religion to be moral?

    PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, absolutely I do.

    QUESTIONER: Christopher?

    PETER HITCHENS: Morality is what you do when you think nobody's looking.

    MODERATOR: Let me [inaudible]...

    PETER HITCHENS: And there's lots of things I would do if I didn't believe in God, yeah.

    Read more at CNN

    1. We are definitely doomed to some sort of relativism. Reminds me of a Chomsky/Singer video on abortion: "The values that we hold are not absolute. They are always contingent. They conflict, and life is made up of decisions and complicated situations and cases of conflicting values. If you listen to just one in isolation, yeah, it may sound legitimate and maybe it is but you have to ask what it means under particular conditions. So, choice is legitimate, preserving life is legitimate, and sometimes they run into conflict."

    2. I came here looking for Dostoevsky's "without God, everything is permissible," which was touched upon in Hitchens vs Hitchens somewhere. In the next paragraph, Ivan's conversational partner immediately responds that a crafty chap can get away with murder, disavowing God’s authority and disregarding his threat in one stroke. He fears only man. At least one person is low enough to be unencumbered by the thesis and he's the very chap we most wish were chastened by the threat of hellfire. Ivan, like C Hitchens (and Dostoevsky himself?) is faithless yet moral, proving there is no necessity for a touchstone. So FD both disavows God's threat and disproves the need for His example: neither is a supportable interpretation. What does that leave us? Perhaps that the moral man is despondent to find himself without a guiding star, and the immoral man won’t see one even in plain sight. Pretty sad. Hitchens highlights a much more hopeful view of humanity, it's a far better reflection on us if we can think of and apply morals without parental supervision, and some do.