Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hitchens unchained

Christopher Hitchens, our favorite athiest Americanist, gives an interview to the Christian "World Magazine" on his views on the War on Terror, George Bush, America and religion. Read the whole thing. Here is his take on America's burden to defend the world from barbarism:

"It's fallen on the United States to be the country that resists the renewal of barbarism, of religious barbarism in the world," Mr. Hitchens answers. "It doesn't particularly want the job, it doesn't do it terribly well—and I think would have escaped it if it could—but there's something about the United States that makes it both hated and antagonistic to this barbarism."

Hitchens observation on Christianity closely mirrors my argument on the Christian doctrine of Christ on the Cross:
In what for Mr. Hitchens is a rare moment of less-than-astute analysis, he says Jesus on the cross "is scapegoating that absolves one of all responsibility in return for the acceptance of the incredible and the undesirable. And then with the other shoe, the other hand, says if you don't believe it, then we have a real program of torture that will go on forever. It's disgusting. It was completely invented by very underdeveloped human beings," he says, astoundingly citing Augustine and Aquinas. "These are peasants; the sort of people we are up against now, with wild looks in their eyes and living in caves."

So where's the continued evolution of the brain in that?

"There is no evolution in that. My agreement with you, with them, is that they leave you alone. But they won't, they can't leave you alone. The other thing is that they want and need the world to come to an end. Eschatology is indivisible from this. They have to look forward to the destruction of the world. We're just marking time until the real stuff. There's a suicidal and destructive element in it, a wish for death.

"You can't wait for this life to be over. But I think it's all we've got."

To answer the interviewer's question, the continued evolution occurs when you put archaic notions of blood guilt and blood sacrifice in your rearview mirror. As I pointed out in an earlier post, these notions are widely rejected by a majority of Christians today as principles of morality, yet same Christians continue to accept that their God upholds them.

Hitchens further views on religion, including the obligatory question of what keeps him from becoming a relativist, are direct and insightful:

Challenged On professing Bible knowledge while eschewing biblical faith, Mr. Hitchens said, "I don't have the nostalgia for the lost period of faith. I'm glad it's over and my children won't have to know about it. Except from me."

WORLD: From you?

HITCHENS: I teach them this stuff and they don't know what I think.

WORLD: How do you teach them without them knowing what you think?

HITCHENS: You are not educated if you don't know the Bible. You can't read Shakespeare or Milton without it, even if there was nothing else of it. And with the schools now, that's what I hate about secular relativism. They're afraid of insurance liability. They don't even teach it as a document. They stay out of the whole thing to avoid controversy. So kids can't quote the King James Bible. That's terrible. And I quite understand Christian parents who want to protect their children from a nihilistic solution where there's no way of knowing what's been discussed.

WORLD: And I guess that's what I'm trying to understand about you, you say you have no nostalgia—

HITCHENS: I have none for myself. I doubt it but I'm very glad I was taught it. I was taught it as revealed truth.

WORLD: But doubting hasn't left you a relativist?

HITCHENS: I'm not a relativist. Most of the little boys and girls with whom I was taught in school aren't even agnostic or atheist; they're just totally indifferent toward religion. That's why I almost wish they would restore compulsory prayer in schools. It's the only thing—as in Europe—that leads to the mass production of atheism.

I think philosophy begins where religion ends. As with the discussion about Darwin, how are you going to teach it if you don't know what the other side is? I know the King James Bible pretty well. It's a fantastic document. I could not imagine my life without it. You couldn't read Paradise Lost. You couldn't read William Blake. Knowing about it is absolutely vital to me.

There was a very interesting dispute between [George] Orwell and [W.H.] Auden. Orwell when he saw the Spanish workers burning the churches because they were so fed up with the priests, he was fairly breezy about it. Auden, who was more pro-communist than Orwell, said he couldn't possibly bear to live in a country where there were no churches.

WORLD: Could you?

HITCHENS: No. There's very slight danger of it, anyway.

Hitchens views pretty much mirror my own, except that I am not so virulently opposed to religion. Hitchens mistake is the same mistake that most Christians make when they assume that atheism or materialism must lead to relativism and nihilism. That mistake is to assume that cosmology begets morality. Another way to phrase it is to say that "ideas have consequences". The fact that a dyed in the wool athiest like Hitchens and an evangelical born again Christian like George W Bush can be so closely aligned in their moral values and commitments should put paid to that notion. Cosmologies, philosophies and theologies are explanatory mechanisms. We construct them because we want to know origins, we want to know about the forces that aminate the world. Our bahaviors, on the other hand, are fashioned by a combination of innate human nature and the environmental experiences of integrating into our families and societies. We learn to live morally through practical, "on the job" training, but we create or imagine our philosophies as explanations for those experiences. Philosophies must be made consistent with our morality and our experiences, not the other way around.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I'm very sorry, but I think I now have a new-found respect for Brit's protests about people not believing what they say they believe. I can certainly understand the fervent anti-marxist who believe it is important to read Das Kapital to understand the enemy, but to say "Marxism. I quite simply identify it with barbarism and backwardness and human stupidity" and then go on the talk about the book as a work of astounding beauty seminal to Western art and thought, a keystone of the educated mind and something the speaker is making sure his three young kids are familar with without telling them what he really thinks is just too much to swallow.

Orrin has been predicting his conversion for several years now and gets shouted down regularly by those like Paul Cella who shove Hitchens' anti-religious screeds in his face. I confess to having succumbed to wetness on this one, but after this article my faith in that famous Juddian prescience has been reborn.

June 03, 2006 4:07 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Some nice stories and thumping prose in there, and uproariously funny if you fancy stupidity. I know it well, too.

Just because someone (or someones) have great technical skill, does not make them capable of admirable thought.

Cf Caran d'Ache.


In any society where the people want to burn down the churches, the priests, if they have any moral sense, will close them.

June 03, 2006 6:45 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I think you missed Mr. Hitchen's point.

When he says You are not educated if you don't know the Bible. You can't read Shakespeare or Milton without it ... that's what I hate about secular relativism. [The schools] don't even teach it as a document.

No matter what one thinks of religion, or the existence of God, he states an inescapable fact: there is a great deal of Western culture that appears rootless in the Bible's absence.

That being so, schools should teach the Bible.

Not devotionally, but analytically. Just like we should do with the Quran. It would be revelatory experience for high school students, although perhaps not in the way some hope.

Slate is running a series called "Blogging the Bible." It is very much like Cliff Notes, only much better written.

Regarding Orrin, three years ago, he predicted Mr. Hitchen's conversion within the next three years.

I think we can safely say he honked that one.

I will buy you, and Orrin, dinner and drinks at the restaurant of your choice should Mr. Hitchens become an adherent of any organized religion by June 3, 2009.

June 03, 2006 7:50 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I'm tempted, Skipper, but his vanity is so monstrous that it does seem far away and he may not have too much time with all the booze and smokes he consumes.

He's a strange one, all right. We've all soared on his prose about Iraq and the US, but I've noted before how he bandies around the word "moral" to great rhetorical effect without ever talking about the source of his morality beyond "it's not nice to slaughter people." He is positively dreamy about the Kurds without ever really telling us why. Some day he is going to have to square his leftist rote love of any oppressed minority that pops up with a slogan and a few freedom fighters with his new-found hope that the big, lumbering old USA will forever roam the world to keep tyrants in check. Those oppressed minorities can bite back pretty hard when somebody gives them breathing space, as anyone tracking East Timor these days can see.

Ah well, so religion is the source of all manner of needless horrors, but it did paint pretty pictures and we can't imagine living without churches? You Duckians are just too subtle for this poor country boy.

June 04, 2006 2:56 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

To what extent can you ascribe the art of the Renaissance to Christianity? Most of that art had a religious theme precisely because the Church was the major patron for artists. The other class of patrons, mainly rich nobles or maerchants, primarily wanted glorified portraits. But those artist s were mainly trying to revive the artistic glories of the pagan classical age, were they not?

June 04, 2006 8:40 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yes, Hitchens is a bundle of contradictions. I find his passionate denunciation of Mother Theresa a bit disturbing. But Orrin's cluelessness on his conversion is all too apparent. Hitchens conversion is already evident. He is an Americanist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Americanism is a religion all its own. Orrin, seeing that I share American values, insists on saying that I am not an athiest and will eventually acknowledge my latent theism. He is delusional, of course.

June 04, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I dunno much about Hitchens, but there is a principle behind supporting Kurdish independence. I don't know why he does, but I know why I do.

Because we Americans are supposed to believe in self-determination of the peoples. Of course,we never really did when put to the test, but since we had no foreign policy to speak of until 1919, we could make the Fourth of July speeches without any more serious charge against us than indifference.

Wilson changed all that. The story of America in the 20th century was one of power politics (with rare exceptions like Roosevelt's evacuation of the Caribbean).

True, when you allow people to govern themselves, they likely will do it differently than you would have done it for them; even antagonistically.

That's one of the problems with having principles. They are not cost-free.

June 04, 2006 10:31 AM  
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December 31, 2006 9:22 PM  

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