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Friday 16 December 2011

Icon Series: Arch-Enemy of God - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens
Image via Wikipedia

Today, the death of this particular icon  caused me to change my mind. Although I never knew Christopher Hitchens I can't help but feel a bit like a guilty "friend" who speaks up only after the demise of a colleague. I am never comfortable with these sort of analogies, as it smacks of hero-worship, but it seems strange to suddenly now feel it is appropriate to write about my feelings towards the new atheist movement only when one their key figures (second possibly to Richard Dawkins) dies.

Let me explain. Christopher Hitchens is a reviled human being. You have only to start writing his name on any search engine and you will start finding recent articles spitting venom all over his name and life. This is a great shame considering we are discussing an intellectual giant. Furthermore, much the figures of the religions he opposed, Hitchens was not merely a philosopher, he was a man of action. Throughout his colourful career as a journalist he put himself inside war-torn countries across the globe, often risking being kidnapped and/or murdered. He often knew the objects or religions of his criticism and disdain far better than those who worshipped them, and coupled with a witty and articulate debating style he was an arguer par excellence. This made him influential and his passion for his beliefs regularly put him in the spotlight. This made him become an icon of a different sort to some. He was a symbol for aggressive form of secularism that was not content with battling the fundamentalists or even "agreeing to disagree" with the moderates. This was a man, second perhaps only to Richard Dawkins,who become famous for wanting to do everything he could to bring an end to belief in the supernatural. The problem with this is that admiration of him - even a balanced book review like the one below - can be seen by some otherwise nice people to be offensive.

Many might argue that the problem lies with those who choose to be offended. My "friends" should take a more balanced approach. However, doing this is to lack empathy or real understanding. Nevertheless, as I write this now I do so hoping that those of my friends who have their beliefs (and the majority of my friends have a belief in something or other) understand where I am coming from with this piece.

Having said this, to revile Hitchens in the manner many have done says far more about their own insecurities and weaknesses than his. Watching fundamentalists write with shameless glee "Goodbye Christopher Hitchens... Welcome to Hell" seems to be a blatant contradiction of a religion that is supposed to preach forgiveness and love. Genuine sorrow surely should be more in line with their religious ideas.

What always interested and impressed me was the religious figures who considered Hitchens a friend or at least a worthy debating opponent. This demonstrated at least an acceptance of Hitchens as an admirable human being. The man was definitely a staunch individualist. He disliked being bracketed in with Dawkins, Harris and others, and loathed the term "Bright". Going against those who shared his socialist and liberal views on politics, he supported the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq. He was also no fan of the Clinton Administration either, flying in the face of his own left-leaning politics. He gave unwavering support to other controversial critics of religion like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and counted them among his friends.

He certainly had his flaws. His shrillness, much like Dawkins and Harris, could irritate me. All New Atheists seem to deny the idea that you can have religions based on non-supernatural concepts and these can be just as dangerous. As you will see in my review of his most famous atheist book, he tried to pre-empt the Stalinist example offered by those who argue this point. However, he forgets to include all the other dangerous cults of personality, Maoism for example, that lead to irrational thinking. Although it should be noted he was willing tackle the "rationalist" cult of Ayn Rand's Objectivism. He had a drinking problem and plenty of his own proverbial demons to deal with.

However, he could not deny his courage. Aside from the obvious dangers of facing extremist religious people in the public sector Hitchens was willing to criticize so-called saints that have transcended their religious base. You don't have to be a Catholic, Tibetan Buddhist or Hindu to have an admiration of Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama or Ghandi. Hitchens had little fear in exposing their flaws and I grateful for his humanization of this icons.

For four decades Christopher Hitchens provided us with intelligent arguments and superb pieces of literature. The man had an amazing wealth of academic knowledge, putting him in the high echelons of intellectual society. When he argued he did so with the best tools available, understanding philosophy, history and wit better than most. You may not have agreed with his views, but there was no denying his ability to run a good argument. Christopher Hitchens will remain an icon of man's ability to think.

I leave you with my review of "God is not Great" and one his most famous debates.

"Bad Religion?" -  A review of "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens

With a subtitle like “How Religion Poisons Everything” Christopher Hitchens’ critique of all organized belief systems is not what you would call subtle. It is infused with an aggressive intelligence from the start. We follow the child Hitchens first being perplexed by his primary school teacher’s reconciliation between nature and Christianity, to the end, where the Hitchens of today makes the case for a secular society built on rationality. 

There is no doubting the author’s academic and public standing. Hitchens is a man championed by none other than the rock star of modern atheism, Richard Dawkins, and a friend of the fatwa targeted author, Salman Rushdie. He is more than acquainted with the literary sources of the targets of his tirade and demonstrates a solid grounding in history, culture and philosophy. This helps him show the inconsistencies and intellectual flaws of the various religions. It is common for most New Atheists, of which Hitchens is regularly grouped alongside Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, to set their arguments against the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but although this trinity get the lion’s share of the critique Hitchens doesn’t allow Buddhism, Hinduism or any New Age cults much room either. His core argument is simple: belief in the irrational and supernatural, especially in the form of an organized religion, is the path to oppression, wars, tribalism and the retardation of progress. He holds that it promotes bigotry in all forms, including sexual and racial inequality, opposes free-thinking, is tantamount to child abuse and vested in an ignorant outmoded view of the world.

Each chapter systematically and uncompromisingly takes apart specific and general ground found in the major world religions, sparing little slack for even the most moderate branches. He doesn’t waste any time either. By chapter two he provides violent examples he has watched first hand in several major cities of the world and credits this violence exclusively to religion. Furthermore, he berates the representatives of moderate mainstream religion for their meddling in politics and lack of condemnation of large scale religious crimes. By making what seems like a curious and disproportionate diversion into the issue of the taboo of eating pork, Hitchens appears to wish to present the primitive and tribal roots of the Abrahamic religions. From the screams of the pig to its other remarkably similar traits to humans, including reports of its taste resembling human flesh, Hitchens theorizes that this taboo might stem from the memory of cannibalism in ancient tribal culture. Hitchens then argues and demonstrates in the next chapter how this primitive view of the world now can and does retard health care, and even allows certain harmful practices to happen even in the developed world. This includes the harmful stances, influences and restrictions they have held in the war on HIV and other newly discovered diseases. According to Hitchens the only reason why they often have taken long and aggressive stances against science is because it undermines their positions of power. 

In “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False” and “Arguments from Design” Hitchens tackles philosophy and science. Philosophy is definitely Hitchens’ bag and where the strength of this book lies. He has a wide array of knowledge and experience, drawing upon history, science and linguistics to provide evidence against various creationist arguments. However, it is when he is looking at the whole framework of debates put by various religious apologists he comes alive and you can see why he is often called upon in open arguments.

Hitchens should be applauded for his willingness to not only tackle subjects that could very well make him a potential target for extremism – several of his other literary friends like Ayaan Hirsi Magan Ali and the aforementioned Salman Rushdie already are – but also for taking on modern saintly figures. Mother Theresa, Ghandi and the Dali Lama are not people that are openly criticized much in polite conversation. However, Hitchens does have some very valid points about all three that are difficult to dispute. In fact, so good are Hitchens’ arguments on such matters that he was called upon as a modern day equivalent of a “devil’s advocate” by the Catholic Church to contend a claim that Mother Theresa performed a miracle. Ghandi’s allowanced for violence when it suited him, his desire to retard technological progress and his position as a religious leader that effectively polarized Indian Muslims are all strong arguments presented in the book’s chapter that argues why eastern religions are not viable alternatives to the Abrahamic faiths. Likewise, Hitchens argues as many sceptics have, that the Dali Lama represents a choice for Tibet that isn’t much of an improvement of its current occupation by Communist China. He cites the Lamas’ monarchical role over people who they treated as little more than serfs. 

“God is not Great” is one of the most complete and well-grounded arguments I have seen levelled at faith. I am not impressed by the impressive-sounding critiques thrown up by supposed historians. Few of his critiques come at the author with any attempt of objectivity and their arguments are usually motivated by a religious apologist agenda. Arguments that Hitchens’ own Marxist political sympathies are revealed and taint the text might be more valid.
Unfortunately although the argument for reason and against damaging supernatural ideas is well-fought, it fails to convince me that religion in itself is evil – or at least that any system that accepts absolutes is flawed and open to perverse manipulation and interpretation. Religion is not a tangible entity. Rather it is an organized manifestation of our default mechanism to believe, our need for reassurance and our desire for certainty. I contend that this does not need to take the form of a supernatural philosophy. Hitchens is apparently prepared for this argument and attempts to counter it in the very well-written and argued “An Objection Anticipated” that appears towards the book’s end. However, it is not completely convincing. In this chapter Hitchens deals with the most common argument he says he faces, namely that the largest atrocities of the 20th century were not perpetrated by religious leaders, but by atheists and agnostics like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. I have always thought the case for Hitler was shaky in this respect. The Nazis may have followed some perverse idea about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in the form of their eugenics programme and their weird racially motivated pseudoscience, but a lot of the inspiration for the movement came from a mixture of Aryan mythology, occultism and the Protestant faith. However, Stalin, initially a trained preacher, ran his politics on the atheist political ideology of communism. Yes, there were religious leaders that bought into these different regimes and gave their blessing, but likewise there have always been secular institutions that have supported religious wars. Hitchens singles out Stalinism, but he neglects to mention the crimes of other communist leaders like Pol Pot of Cambodia and Mao Zedong who is probably responsible for the death of even more of his own people than Stalin. 

In light of this it would be interesting to pit Hitchens’ argument against Scott Atran’s recent examination of religious extremism. Atran, who has also interviewed and seen religious fundamentalism at its most dangerous, sees religion as a natural manifestation of the way the human race’s mind has evolved. He makes no distinction between supernatural belief systems and “rational” ideologies, and I feel he has a strong case. Ayn Rand, herself a founder of secular atheist ideology, would often argue that the communism she abhorred in Russia had its own form of mysticism. Hitchens correctly expands on this mysticism by putting forward the case of Lysenkoism. Trofim Lysenko was Stalin’s favoured “scientist” who manipulated the scientific process to satisfy the beliefs and doctrines of Stalinism. This led to the persecution and execution of several respected Soviet scientists. Hitchens, a man with strong Marxist political roots, sees this as more an example of the irrationality of religion at work. Not surprisingly Hitchens is a critique of the right-leaning Rand too, but his argument against her philosophy is absent from this book. Michael Shermer’s critique of Rand’s Objectivism shows the dangers of atheists accepting an absolute and I think is key in the debate.

Ultimately Christopher Hitchens persuasive book – packed full of great arguments taken from history and powerful philosophical attacks that undermine belief systems created in an age far removed from now – comes just short of proving its case. To condemn religion for the major evils of this world is the easy way out. My view is still with atheist Brian Dunning when he argued the case on his podcast, “Skeptoid”. People commit evil acts. Often a religion or an ideology is just an excuse. Often the greatest perpetrators of these evil are condemned as hypocrites, which shows that they rarely follow their belief system – however outmoded or irrational – to the letter. Yes, there are clearly institutionalized evils in certain organizations, but we always find this can be traced back to the manipulations and weaknesses of individuals. Herd instinct and tribal identity are part of our genetic make-up. Laying wrongdoing at the door of an intangible entity is an abdication of responsibility.

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