Friday, August 13, 2010

Hitchens and C. P. Farley: god is Not Great

  • C.P. Farley's interview with Christopher Hitchens: god is Not Great
  • Date unknown,

    FARLEY: Your book is one of several that have come out recently that argue against religion.

    HITCHENS: It's true. Books like this have been doing better than they might have done a few years ago. I think it's because people have had enough of religious bullying: the Danish cartoons, the way the parties of God are behaving in Iraq and elsewhere, the attempt to teach garbage to our children under the stupid pretext of Intelligent Design, believing that AIDS is bad, but condoms are worse — I think people have had enough of all that stuff. But then, some really excellent and important individuals like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have decided that it's time to get out there and combat this. And it's sort of working. I am, luckily, riding their wave, or their coattails.

    FARLEY: What effect do you think these books are having?

    HITCHENS: Well, the other day, for example, in London, Dawkins and I and a moral philosopher, a brilliant guy called Anthony Grayling who's also written an atheist book, were asked to debate three spokesmen of the other side. And the debate had to be moved from its original venue, which is pretty big, to the largest hall in London. They couldn't accommodate all the people who wanted to get in. They were paying to come, too. Quite extraordinary. There is something in the air about this now. People realize that they thought that the essentially secular values of the Enlightenment were fairly safe, that they wouldn't have to do anything to earn them or to defend them. They just luckily inherited what people had done before. No. In fact, we're going to have to fight for them ourselves. Good. I'm glad. I think it's a good thing.

    FARLEY: Do you see the same climate here in the United States as you do in England?

    HITCHENS: Definitely. I mean, Richard Dawkins's book has sold 180,000 in hardback, I think. This book was launched, by me anyway, at the Arkansas literary festival in Little Rock a couple of weekends ago, and it pulled in, if I say it myself, a very very full house of very enthusiastic people. On a Sunday! And I'm going to spend a lot of time in Dixie on a book tour. I asked the publisher to arrange it that way. And we've issued a charge. We've got three or four debates with local religious figures. So we're going to test this proposition that everyone in this country is a credulous believer. I don't think it's true. I'm not sure how confident even the believers are in what they believe. So, we're going to give them a run for it, anyway. It's no merit of mine, I don't think, that the book is number four on Amazon before it's published. People are willing now to push back a bit.

    FARLEY: Yes, people are a little fed up. The rise of fundamentalism in this country has been going on for some time now. But I think it took the opposition awhile to get frightened and angry enough to push back.

    HITCHENS: Indeed. I'm pretty sure that's what's going on.

    FARLEY: It seems to me that you are arguing not so much against religion as you are against people who believe in a certain kind of truth, truth with a capital T, truth that can't be questioned or doubted, truth that requires faith despite evidence...

    HITCHENS: Yes. The target is faith, really, the willingness of people to believe something without reason or without evidence. And not just anything, either, but the most important things. In other words, they claim to have the authority of the divine to tell people what to eat, what to read, how to have sex. They don't just say God exists, something that not even the most brilliant theologian has ever been able to demonstrate, but that they know his mind. They know what he wants me to have for lunch, or not, or, what book to have on the shelf, or with whom to go to bed. It's preposterous. If it was a belief in astrology, say, which is based on the same mentality as religion, that the heavens were arranged with you in mind, I wouldn't care. If someone believes that the most important thing about them is that they're a Capricorn, that can't do me any harm. As Thomas Jefferson says, that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. He didn't care if there were one god or a hundred gods. But, he was wrong in saying that that was true of all religions. Because the people who do believe think they have the right to tell me what to do — with threats behind it. And that I won't have. I refuse to be talked to in that tone of voice.

    FARLEY: Which is how you are able to describe the secular totalitarian governments of the twentieth century as essentially religious?

    HITCHENS: I don't think it casuistry to do this. Because if you are, say, Joseph Stalin, and you have taken power in a country where until very recently the Czar, the hereditary ruler, was also the head of the church and was believed by millions and millions of people to be quasi-divine, you'd be really stupid if you didn't try to exploit that belief and try as far as possible to emulate it. You'd know it was there to be called upon. And, of course, in the case of fascism, fascism is practically another word for Catholicism, for those decades. Hitlerism was a pagan, quasi-Christian movement. And imperial Japanese fascism was actually led by a person who was a god. Not even a pope, but a god himself, for crying out loud. It's very obvious that Chinese communism is in some ways an emulation of Confucian and imperial methods. So, the task of the atheist is essentially to move people into a position of skepticism where they wouldn't fall for anything like that either. No country has ever suffered from adopting the views of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Bertrand Russell, Baruch Spinoza, etc. No one's ever said, Ha, it was only when they started to think like that that they started to build concentration camps. It's never happened. Never will, either.

    FARLEY: I thought it interesting that you wrapped Buddhism up in all this because at one point you suggest, quite rightly, that Buddhism isn't really a religion.

    HITCHENS: No, but it's a faith.

    FARLEY: Is it?

    HITCHENS: Well, Sam Harris and I disagree very much on this, and he may possibly be right. We haven't had the full-out discussion yet. He is a sort of Buddhist. And he's definitely an atheist. What I'm saying is that it's still an appeal to the transcendent — it's a surrender of the mind.

    FARLEY: In my experience, Buddhism teaches deep skepticism, that you shouldn't trust anything you don't experience for yourself.

    HITCHENS: Yes, but you're supposed to be the subjective judge of what you're experiencing, are you not? Look, it doesn't seem to me, given what I write about its past, that it can be as innocuous as so many people believe. I failed to mention, I meant to, in my list of things that Buddhism or Buddhists have been responsible for, that it's also the case that the Burmese dictatorship is a Buddhist one. It spends a great deal of the national product building stupas. But I know that some people will think I'm piling on a bit there. That's the only thing in the book so far that I've run into that I might have to consider rewriting. I am going to have a proper dialogue with Sam Harris on this because he is a very serious guy and he thinks I'm in error here. I'm not closed-minded. When I'm talking about Buddhism I don't feel the same sense of urgency as I do when I'm talking about Islam, say. So I'm happy to concede that.

    FARLEY: I'll let Sam Harris take it from there, then. One thing you don't discuss directly is mythology. Many people consider religions myths, not literal truths. Most of the scholars who have studied this subject — whether they're psychologists, or anthropologists, or whatever — they tend to conclude not only that all human societies have mythologies, but that we are hardwired for myth. Even more, that a human society must have a functioning mythology to be healthy. Do you agree?

    HITCHENS: Yes, I mean, it's very very hard to disagree with that, because the evidence is that we are myth-making creatures, and legend-building creatures.

    FARLEY: So, I guess the question is, if you are opposed to a world-view based on faith, what would a healthy mythology look like?

    HITCHENS: I have to say that I think, because again nothing should be, as it were, taken on trust, I would be dubious about whatever the prevailing mythology was. But I think there could be a reasonably healthy one. Actually, there's an example I kick myself for not putting in the book. Everyone knows the story of William Tell. And in Switzerland that's what they teach the children. It's the foundational myth of the national hero and so forth. But there's a recent work being published that suggests that there really was no such person. It was quite a shock in Switzerland. You know, you're going to leave us with some of our illusions, surely? The William Tell story is not a bad one. It's a perfectly healthy national myth to have. People shouldn't mind terribly calling it a myth. The danger is when they don't think it's mythical. As with, say, Israeli archaeology, as I do discuss. They concluded that the story of the Exodus is all nonsense. It's all made up. Some people would find it had real world consequences to admit that — which it does have. The English believe in King Arthur, but it is not quite the same. People know it is partly fantasy. And, again, I think it is fairly harmless. The idea that the United States was a new birth of freedom and so forth is, I think, a partial truth.

    FARLEY: But also a myth?

    HITCHENS: There are many many mythical elements to it. It involves remembering a lot of things, and forgetting a lot of things.

    FARLEY: But doesn't this myth have harmful effects as well as positive effects?

    HITCHENS: Well, anything that's nationalist can turn toxic at any minute, of course, even if its ostensible claims are noble ones. Very much so, yeah. I think it's always right to be on guard about this because it's only a short step to the suggestion that almost all nations do have that God has a special providence for them. And, I find I'm even more on my guard when that starts to come up. It wouldn't be for me to say how healthy my life was, but I don't think I lead it with anything approaching a mythological faith. For me, it's enough that Shakespeare ever lived. I would, actually, be upset to find — well, I wouldn't be upset to find that the Earl of Oxford wrote all those plays. What would shake me was to find out that it all wasn't written by one person, that several of the plays had different authors. Then somehow the achievement is diminished. It wouldn't diminish the standing of the plays, but I would get the blues if that was true. But I'm absolutely willing to read the evidence without prejudice if it's ever presented to me. My proposal for the United Kingdom when it becomes a republic and disestablishes the Church of England, which we're long overdue to do (I say we, though I've actually just become an American citizen), is that we change Westminster Abbey from what it is now, a sort of bone yard for kings with a thing called Poet's Corner, where Auden and Wilde and Kipling and so on are, and we make that, instead, the centerpiece. We make it a temple of our national letters, and that of Ireland and Wales and Scotland as well. That would be worth showing to school children, and it would be worth showing to tourists. You could be proud of it.

    FARLEY: Speaking of mythologists, that was Joseph Campbell's conclusion, that traditional cultural mythologies that are believed by entire societies, like Jesus and the resurrection and so forth, are being replaced by the individual mythologies as expressed by individual artists. That mythical stories were being replaced by singular artistic visions.

    HITCHENS: Well, I'd like to think that's the way things are going. Unfortunately, it has the corollary, what we vulgarly call celebrity culture, which I don't like either, because it has the effect of not exactly deifying but elevating mediocre human individuals into something like cult status. That, I don't trust. There are lots of secular forms of worship, and propitiation I don't like.

    FARLEY: Like Marilyn Monroe, who in the end is more like a cultural archetype than a human being.

    HITCHENS: Particularly her, as it happens. Partly because I used to worry that I was gay or something when I was young, not that that would be such a terrible thing. I could not see what was sexually attractive about her.

    FARLEY: Well, I'm gay and I get it.

    HITCHENS: Oh, good, well, I've since found that many many gay people think she's absolute heaven. Like Elizabeth Taylor. I wouldn't fuck Elizabeth Taylor with your dick. Then Briget Bardot came along and I realized I was all right.

    FARLEY: So, your sensibilities, at least with women, are more European, then. Yet, you chose to move to the United States.

    HITCHENS: I did. I had to come here to become a writer. I think I now understand why it was I always wanted to come to the United States. And it's to do with the other ambition that I always had and couldn't explain, wanting to become a writer. In some way, the two impulses were closely connected, I now realize, because I only really started to develop as a writer when I came here.

    FARLEY: Do you have any idea why that is?

    HITCHENS: No, any more than I have an idea why it is that I never wanted to do anything else, wouldn't be able to do anything else: it chose me.

    FARLEY: Actually this question of Europe and the United States interested me. If the topic is religion, and you're an atheist, it seems that Europe in many ways exemplifies your ideal much better than the United States. Europe is much more of a secular culture.

    HITCHENS: Oh, no, I really don't think so. For example, in Britain the queen is head of the church as well as head of the state. Religious instruction and worship in the schools is legally mandatory. Subsidies are paid now to provide for separate schools for Muslims, which would be unthinkable in the United States. In Germany you have to pay a tithe, a portion of your taxes to a church. You can choose which one it is, but it's extremely difficult to opt out of paying to one at all. It would be quite false not to say that France is a Catholic country. The government appoints the bishops. It also appoints the Muslim imams. It can hire and fire them. This is a disgraceful state of affairs. The United States constitution is the only ever written, and the only one extant, which explicitly separates the church from the state and says that the government can not take a side in religious matters. That's why, when I took my oath of citizenship, I arranged to take it at Thomas Jefferson's memorial in Washington, partly because I'm his biographer, but also because we have the same birthday. April thirteenth, that's the day we did it. His Virginia statute on religious freedom is the basis of the first amendment, and that's what I'm in the business of defending. And, so far, we win, because the most recent challenge to it, this absurd so-called intelligent design movement, the only really intelligent thing about it is that it's managed to get people to call it intelligent design, instead of what it is, just brute creationism. Well, even in Oklahoma and in Texas and in the most conservative county in Pennsylvania where the courts have heard this, they've flung it out, dismissed it, and told the legal system to stop bothering with this tripe. But that's not what most Europeans think of the United States. Indeed, it's not what many American liberals think of the United States, either.

    FARLEY: Explain.

    HITCHENS: Well, they think the place is saturated with fundamentalism, when this is absolutely not true. People like Falwell and Robertson are clown figures, in fact. They're just waiting to be even more exposed than they are.

    FARLEY: Well, they're very powerful.

    HITCHENS: No they're not. They're absolutely not.

    FARLEY: One hundred and fifty lawyers from Pat Robertson's fourth tier law school were hired by the Bush administration.

    HITCHENS: They were, yeah, but it doesn't show. It absolutely doesn't show. Has there been a single school prayer uttered? No. Nor will there be. If they won on a thing like that, it would be the end of them. The reason these guys are prominent is because they keep losing. Because they can represent themselves as a persecuted minority, which is in fact how they do sell themselves. When they were really powerful in the twenties, they were able to change the constitution. They were able to ban alcohol and ban the teaching of evolution. Now they only demand equal time, you notice, and they can't even get that. But their two big victories of the twentieth century, Prohibition and the Scopes verdict, were the end of them. Not even in the long term, but in the fairly short and middle term, they totally discredited themselves. They'll never get that position back. But even if they did, just suppose they could elect, or impose themselves upon an administration such as to mandate school prayer, ban abortion, and a couple other things, you know exactly what would happen.

    FARLEY: If Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, it would be a huge blow to the Republican Party.

    HITCHENS: Yes. So, in my experience the people who bang the drum all the time about the Christian Right, so called, are essentially fundraisers for the Democratic party trying to frighten Jews into giving money. These people are not within a million miles of getting their hands on the levers of power. And, if they did, it would be the end of them. So, I think it's a scare tactic. By the way, this very often comes from people who have nothing to say about someone like the so-called reverend Al Sharpton. Or the appalling religiosity of Barack Obama. Did you read the New York Times on Monday?

    FARLEY: I didn't.

    HITCHENS: Well, have a look at the crap church he is involved with in Chicago. Sinister, ethnic-based, cult thing. And this guru he's got. If it was a Republican doing this we'd all be absolutely surging to and fro. They get a free pass. And all this nonsense of Dr. King's dream, and so on, that I attack as well. As if you need a dream to say that African Americans should have civil rights. It's a very material fact, that had already been proved by black secularists. There's no need for a preacher to get involved in this.

    FARLEY: You also argued that Dr. King's arguments were not at their core religious, and that's why they succeeded.

    HITCHENS: Yes. One of the reasons I admire him so much, apart from his exceptional moral and physical courage, is that it is precisely because he didn't invoke Exodus that he can be defended. I don't think that's very often pointed out, is it? And the left in this country is saturated with religiosity, like nonsense like Liberation Theology and so forth. And that to me is just as bad, in some cases worse.

    FARLEY: Worse than...?

    HITCHENS: Than a harmless clown like Falwell, who is hopelessly overblown.

    FARLEY: Or Al Sharpton?

    HITCHENS: Yes, Al Sharpton is a racist and a hooligan and a thug and a liar. But he gets treated with exaggerated respect.

    FARLEY: He does get a lot of air time.

    HITCHENS: I am at present listed to debate him next Monday at the New York Public Library. But I don't think he'll show up. I have a feeling on the night he won't be there.

    FARLEY: I was also struck in the book: a number of times you use the word "evil." To my mind that is a fundamentally theological or cosmological word, which to me feels at odds with your premise.

    HITCHENS: Yes, it is, too. It is a contradiction in me. I acknowledge it. But I find the word is necessary. I've written about this at greater length if you're interested.

    FARLEY: Where?

    HITCHENS: In my little book about Iraq. It was a collection of my Slate columns on my arguments about the war. And it's called A Long Short War. You may even have it in the store. It's a little pamphlet, really. And, one of the essays in there is about the question of evil. I say that people laugh when the president uses the word evil, as if he's being morally simplistic. But when people explain their decision to once again swallow their vomit and vote for the Democratic Party they always say it's the lesser evil, don't they? So if you put the word lesser in front of it people seem to be able to use the word. But I quote Robert Fisk, one of the president's most intense critics. He went into Kuwait just after the Iraqi army had been expelled from there, in '91. He said that, walking around the place and seeing what had happened in the time they occupied it, you couldn't shake the idea that something very evil had occurred. And I was very impressed that Fisk would do that. I said I thought I knew exactly what he meant. It's not just a matter of cruelty for its own sake, it's a matter of cruelty that's going to destroy you, too. Cruelty for its own sake is pretty easy to understand as a source of pleasure. But, people who pursue it so that it kills them, too. The surplus value of fascism is evil, I would say. We need a word for it. If it wasn't the word evil, it would be another word that meant the same thing. There has to be such a term. Our universe would be incomplete without it.

    FARLEY: Evil, as opposed to mental illness.

    HITCHENS: Very much so, because that is to reduce it, and try and tame it. The Greeks used to call the furies the eumenides, which means the "kindly ones" in Greek. They thought if they gave then a nice name they might not hear. You could say it under your breath, you could mention them, but they were so awful, so terrifying, that you couldn't call them by their real name. I think that's a very strong human tendency. And certainly psychoanalysis's disposal of the problem of evil doesn't work. Or, it doesn't work for me. I actually feel that I've once or twice met genuinely evil people, and I've seen the work of evil in the world.

    FARLEY: To "see the work of evil in the world." Once again, that sounds very cosmological to me.

    HITCHENS: You're right. I admit that it appears to.

    FARLEY: And I'm curious how that fits in with your opposition to faith.

    HITCHENS: It isn't an article of faith. It's a conviction, not without evidence. And I'd have to introduce you to the people concerned or show you what I saw in Northern Iraq, or a couple of things like that. But I would be able to fight in my corner, all the time knowing that to a certain extent it contradicts my rationalism. But I just defy anyone to get by without the word. And nobody does, and nobody can, and there must be a reason. If you talk about Satan or the devil or hell or any of these things, that's different. I think anyone who believes in that is a fool. Or, if not a fool, then easily fooled — and too easily frightened. But, I don't know any thinking person who manages to get by without recourse to a word like evil or wicked. There must be, therefore, a reason for that. But, when I've done my best there's still a sort of ten percent around the thing that I haven't accounted for. I do appreciate that.

    FARLEY: I would like to talk a bit about Iraq. I don't want to talk about why you believe the war was justified. You've covered that elsewhere. But I'm very curious, if you are standing against religion and for secularism, it seems that your stand on Iraq has put you in league or in alliance with many people who are on the opposite side of that argument. The president framed the war in terms of good and evil, and many religious people bought it on those terms. Meanwhile, you have made yourself very unpopular with huge swathes of the secular left. And I just find that a very curious position for you to be in.

    HITCHENS: Yes, but I think the ironies are more at their expense than they are mine. One, it is the people who are on the left who refer to the parties of god and the jihadist murderers in Iraq as "the resistance," not me. And it's been the left that has been euphemizing Islamism since before 9/11, thinking of it as a protest of unjust conditions, which is exactly what it isn't. It's the creator of unjust conditions. It doesn't come from poverty and unemployment, it's the creator of poverty and unemployment and injustice. So, I've had a long quarrel with the left on this point, for their softness on religion, this version of it, for a long time. Second, the faction that advocated for the liberation of Iraq, apart from the Iraqi left and the Kurdish left, was, in American terms, the so-called neo-conservatives, who are renowned, among other things for — it's often a bit overstated — but for their relationship with Leo Strauss, who was a very very firm atheist. In particular, he had contempt for Christianity, as did the other best-known right wing thinker in the country, Ayn Rand. The fundamentalists are not particularly high on the war in Iraq. They're prepared to follow the president if he does something like this, for the most part. And I quote a couple of them who even thought there might be a few biblical prophecies involved about Babylon and so forth, garbage like that. But this doesn't get you out of your difficulty, because it happens to be the case that the issue of Darfur has been kept alive in this country most of all by the Christians, as has the issue of human trafficking and slavery in parts of Africa. So, if you brought up the issue of Darfur, it wouldn't really be fair of me to say that now you've put yourself in the fundamentalist camp, now would it?

    FARLEY: No.

    HITCHENS: Very well, then. I think those are all the answers I was going to give on that point. But the thing I want to emphasize the most is that the Iraqi Arab and Kurdish secular left is the main object of my solidarity. And they were of one mind in getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Whereas all the religious people in the world seem to want to keep him in power. I mean all the Muslim nut bags seem to be willing to fight to keep him there.

    FARLEY: Isn't the objection from secular people that by deposing Saddam we are setting the preconditions for a Shiite state, a theocracy, similar to the one in Iran? Isn't that the concern?

    HITCHENS: It is a concern, yes. But this is what you might call a prisoner's dilemma because the fear of Khomeini was what put the United States government in the camp of Saddam Hussein in the first place. And it is, unfortunately, the case in the material world that if you weaken Iraq you strengthen Iran, and vice versa. What I think it's not completely quixotic to hope is that if you could get anything even remotely resembling a Shiite democracy in Iraq — it wouldn't be exclusively Shia, because, for example, the Kurds, who are approximately one fifth of the country, are all Sunni, but a recognition that Iraq is majority Shia, which it is — actually, it could lead to a situation where they were friendlier with Iran, where there would never be another war between the two countries, and where some of the democratic ideas that are washing around Iraq would become part of the Iranian conversation too. And indeed there are some reasons to think that is happening. I've interviewed anti-regime imams in Iran, including Khomeini's grandson, Said Khomeini, who want to overthrow the theocracy there and who've been very encouraged by what they unfailingly call the liberation of Iraq. So there's another dialectic at work in the longer run, we hope. And even if it doesn't happen any time soon, I think it's thinkable. It's certainly the side I'm on. So I feel I know what I'm doing.

    FARLEY: I think much of the distrust of this venture stems from a deep mistrust of Bush, much of which is tied to his overt religiosity and his ties to the religious right. So I also found interesting in the book how you downplayed the left's distrust of Bush's religiosity. People are very protective of the secular foundation of this country and fear that Bush is eroding that. You disagree?

    HITCHENS: No, I think it's overstated and sometimes misstated. The president does not say that he was born again. Only Jimmy Carter of our presidents ever said that, a man who is now on the left widely adored.

    FARLEY: But Bush has used all the language of the born again, in code, perhaps.

    HITCHENS: No, he's not. Nor does he say that he's on a mission from God. He's very careful not to do that. And he's considered, as you know, to be a great disappointment by the fundamentalists, and not without reason. He is a fool, who thinks that the word faith is automatically a compliment. He said that's why he trusted Vladimir Putin, for example, because he wore a crucifix. Even he, dumb as he is, must regret having said that. And clearly he bids for the votes of people who are religious bigots. I would criticize him for all that. I just don't want it to be overstated or misunderstood. It's certainly not because of his religion that he decided to take out Saddam Hussein. The American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq depends very largely on the emergence of secular forces. That's obvious to everyone on the right, that our only friends are the seculars in these countries. Progress is measured by secularization. That is an irony I can absolutely live with. And it's at the expense of the believers in both countries. It's not a matter of people's subjective opinion of things. It's what they're actually doing. Bush is a disaster as president. And I don't think anyone doubts that I think that. But I don't think as a religious nut bag he's in the same class as Jimmy Carter, who's now being praised all over the liberal world as a peacemaker and all this sort of thing. In his book he writes that the problem with Israel is that it's too secular. Good grief! Bush is not even in the same class as a religious hypocrite in the matter of piety as Bill Clinton, with his prayer breakfasts and carrying the Bible all the time. What I think of it is, you call it the left standing by secularism. I call it trying to preserve their comfort zone, by thinking that religion is only a problem on the right. That is simply a mistake. It's a false picture of reality.
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