Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Faith & fanaticism & The Hitch

February 16, 2012

The final essay in Antony’s Philosophers Without Gods is Jonathan Adler’s “Faith & Fanaticism.” We’ll talk about that in A&P today, and anything else anyone proposes. Maybe sample some “Why I’m an Atheist” posts at Pharyngula, or some Hitchens

It’s still hard to comprehend The Hitch’s permanent departure. “You may not see the point of all this faith now,” one of his early religious teachers instructed. “But one day you will, when you start to lose loved ones.” His 12-year old self reacted admirably:

I experienced a stab of sheer indignation as well as disbelief. Why, that would be as much as saying that religion might not be true, but never mind that, since it can be relied upon for comfort. How contemptible.

It’s not the comfort that’s contemptible, but the lying. Hitch combined a deep love of humanity with a hatred of deceit and (one of his favorite words) servility.

We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful… We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way… We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.

Hitch anticipated de Botton’s “religion for atheists”:

There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them… To us no spot on earth is or could be “holier” than another… God is not Great

What a gift of unflappable fluency that guy had! Those of us who miss him most should get together to appreciate him properly, in the company of his friend Johnnie Walker. He never varnished the truth about fanatics. As he said of his friend Rushdie,

it is not the job of writers and thinkers to appease the faithful. And the faithful, if in fact upset or offended, are quite able and entitled to explore all forms of protest. Short of violence.

Adler’s thesis is straightforward: “faith is fertile ground for fanaticism.” True believers obey religious commands “even when they violate basic ethical prohibitions.” Abraham, no Kantian, would have murdered his son.

Well, what of James’s vaunted will (or right) to believe? This only goes for “beliefs whose content could not be established by reason or evidence,” and it presumes that “what is believed  is (believed to be) true.” We have every right to our own beliefs, but not to our own facts. C.S. Peirce, the “pragmaticist,” usefully supports this view. “It is the world that determines what I am to believe,” not personal fiat.

W.K. Clifford said believe only what the evidence compels. We don’t know a thing about tomorrow or the day after. And yet, I insist on believing that I and we have a future. I must believe that. Why else haul out of bed at 5 am on a cold and dark winter’s morn? A belief is a platform for action, and I want to act prospectively. So, I form beliefs embodying expectations and hopes. They may be confounded, I may be disappointed, but at least I won’t be a mere spectator of my own life.

Next up: 50 Voices of Disbeliefwhich picks up where Adler leaves off.

Religious fanaticism seems to have become ever more successful in preventing even multicultural societies from discussing the merits, or otherwise, of religious ideologies versus humanist alternatives. Cartoonists and authors of books critical of religion have become popular targets for death threats by religious fanatics. Each week, it seems harder to keep the candle of reason alight. Yet, “respect” for the intolerant ideologues’ teachings has, it seems, become the order of the day, when intolerance of intolerance would arguably be a more appropriate response to religious fundamentalism…

And that’s the spirit of Mr. Deity and the Quitter, with all due respect.

Speaking of Mormons, did you hear the NPR story yesterday about posthumous Baptism? No personal disrespect intended, but how silly can religion get?

But we can’t just laugh it off. There’s nothing funny about hell to a child. This is my answer to the question posed last time, about whether it’s unfair to moderate theists not to let the “nicer” versions represent all of religion: it’s more unfair to the mentally (and sometimes physically) abused victims of hell on earth to give cover of darkness to those who would instill irrational fear in innocent children.

Thankfully, we can give children a much better story. This View of Life, of  “anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective,” is full of the magic of reality. To hell with fear:  I think I’m going to be a little more strident about that. As The Hitch’s pal Julian Barnes said, the undiscover’d country is nothing to  be frightened of.


Philosophers Clubforce for good (Hitchens-Blair debate)… alive (Gerson on Hitch’s “joy & juice”)… this dishonest American life (“the voice of reason, which sounds like Christopher Hitchens”)… portable atheistsHitch (defending his subtitle)… Mr. Deity (evil, Pythons, Carlin,  Adams)… Coming Soon (Woody on immortality etc.)… Hitch aliveWright vs. HitchensFour Horsemen…  more Hitch links from DS

MLK Day-Are we there yet?

January 16, 2012

No, we’ve not reached the mountaintop of justice for all. Ours remains a deeply flawed species, our politics has degenerated to the extent that at least one popular GOP candidate openly avows that he would not have supported federal action on behalf of the transformative Civil Rights initiatives of the ’60s, our civic dialogue is often an embarrassment.

But yes, we’ve made strides. Doors have opened, opportunities have created hope where there was despair. We should celebrate those victories today and continue the climb to freedom. And we who study philosophy should recall Dr. King’s advocacy of constructive Socratic tension, and continue to ratchet the pressure for progress in this imperfect time.

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.  Letter from Birmingham Jail

We may not reach the promised land, but it shouldn’t be for not trying. As historian Taylor Branch wrote of King’s “last wish,”

How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

So no, we’re not there yet. But asking questions and “creating tension in the mind” will move us on down the road. That’s the faith of a philosopher, and it’s why MLK makes the last cut on our timeline.  We can argue about whether his religion “improved” King, or whether his own virtuous character improved his religion. Just let Hitch have the last uncontroversial word, for once:

One wishes every day that Martin Luther King had lived on and continued to lend his presence and his wisdom to American politics.


irrational exuberance

December 24, 2010

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination… Kay Redfield Jamison

Generosity continues to speak to me, this morning in connection with those nuns whose own exuberance for living the cloistered life is so contrary to my own sensibility, and so sad to me. But just listen to them, they’re beside themselves with the ecstatic joy of a meaningfulness they had not found in the secular world. Sister Beatrice says

this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this — this defining relationship that would give value to everything.”


“I met the person for me. I’ve been known by him forever. And I’ve known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I’m called to.”

“We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” says another Sister. I find that creepy and depressing, myself. But we’re not talking about me.

Ex uberare—”the pouring forth of fruit.” If we’re going to be Jamesian pragmatists about this we’ll just have to overlook some of the absurdity and focus on the fruit, the good works, the charity, the high-spirited mobilizing of personal and institutional energies for good.

And for bad, Hitch will remind us: church edicts proscribing contraception in Africa, priestly perversion and child rape… it all goes onto the scale.

Wisdom, James said, is knowing what to overlook. My challenge, again, as an aspirant “atheist with a soul”, is where to draw the line beyond which tolerable absurdity becomes the kind that should no longer be overlooked?

Julia Sweeney pointed out in Letting Go of God that the line between trinitarian virgin birth and Joe Smith-style weirdness is specious, just a shade this side of Scientology. And Deepak Chopra’s New Age quantum weirdness is right in there with them.

But, on this holiday eve, it would be much more in the spirit to overlook all that for now and instead accentuate the positive. Take it away, Eric

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

OK, that last couplet isn’t entirely positive. But I’m told there’s healing in prayer.

force for good?

December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

My independent study student has been wrestling with what I’ve come to think of (at Rebecca Goldstein’s instigation in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) as the “atheist with a soul” challenge. I wrestle with it too.

The challenge, put succinctly, is to decide whether non-believers ought to concede the rational right of believers to believe. Goldstein draws heavily on William James’s famous essay “Will to Believe,” in which James rejects the standard of W.K. Clifford that it’s always wrong to believe anything on “insufficient evidence.” (That has to be scare-quoted, because the question of what constitutes sufficiency is itself a point of serious contention here.)

James may go too far in his defense of “belief,” and I’m personally very sympathetic in my own habits of belief-formation to the Clifford line. It’s finally a question, though, of how humbly ecumenical and “friendly” an atheist should be towards theists.

James said this debate is not mostly about God. Most of what humans have said and thought about God may even be “absurd” without tarnishing the religious impulse. It’s about life.
It’s about individuals coming to terms with their existence, and finding ways of living constructive, engaged lives.
With the semester at last concluded, I finally got around to watching the Hitchens-Blair debate in Toronto last month. Of course Hitch wiped the floor, forensically speaking, with his Right Honourable opponent.  But…
Blair’s humility and solicitude on behalf of those whose lives have been enriched by their peculiar personal religiosity still rings true to me. Or rather, not “true” but somehow “right.”
Yes, much harm has been done historically, hysterically, in the name of religion. Much harm has been done, period. I wish everyone found, in our shared natural and humanistic legacy, the sufficient ground for good that I and my fellow humanists find.
But when we come across good people doing good work and crediting faith with supplying their fuel, let’s look pragmatically to the fruits – not the roots. And let’s keep encouraging them to consider the inspiration under our feet,  in the stars, in the natural universe.
That said, though, I have to say too: Damn! Hitch is magnificent.


October 22, 2010

We talked about the varieties of humanism yesterday.

I really like the version that sees humanism fundamentally as an expression of the love of life.

Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy for those in love with life. Humanists take responsibility for their own lives and relish the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options. Instead of finding solace in prefabricated answers to the great questions of life, humanists enjoy the open-endedness of a quest and the freedom of discovery that this entails.


This sentiment was given unexpected voice recently by Michael Gerson, George Bush’s old speechwriter, writing of Christopher Hitchens’ joie de vivre and his special talent for friendship.

In earlier times, without derision or irony, this would have been called “humanism,” a delight in all things human — in wit and wine and good company and conversation and fine writing and debate of large issues. Hitchens’s joy and juice put many believers of my acquaintance to shame — people for whom religion has become a bloodless substitute for life. “The glory of God,” said St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive.” Hitchens would hate the quote, but he proves the claim.

I don’t think Hitch hates the quote. I don’t. The best humanists are fully alive, as Hitch seems to be in these sadly dwindling days of his cancerous physical decline. Glorious days.

The days, as Emerson said, are Gods.

happiness is

June 3, 2010

Eric Weiner says only a philosopher or a fool would attempt to generalize about happiness.

Christopher Hitchens, channeling Dr. Johnson, says only a fool would write except for money.

There’s two quick strikes against me, but here’s my foolish, unremunerated generalization:

Happiness is a day in June when school’s out, the kids are home, the weather’s fine, the bikes are oiled, the net is up, and the latest netflix disc is in the mailbox.

Not saying that’s the only answer, just one of ’em. Yesterday’s. Wonder what today’s will be.

Wednesday’s big adventure: a bike trek to Target, at Younger Daughter’s request. (All those birthday gift cards were screaming for her attention.) Not exactly the Tour de France, but enough hills and heat to make it an achievement for the likes of us. The shine’s officially off the Schwinn.

Then, back to the hospital. Granny’s surgery went well. Nice view of the Tennessee state capitol building from her room. The girls like eating in the Food Court.

Home in time for dinner, courtesy of our wonderfully thoughtful neighbor. Then another round of badminton, again at Younger Daughter’s request. You can expel a lot of aggression, smacking the birdie.

We  were disappointed when a couple of thunder-claps cancelled the free movie in the park we were planning to enjoy, but then capped our evening instead with a screening of the first Lost episode, at Older Daughter’s request. A disturbingly-gory plane crash (some of us had to leave the room), an unexpected polar bear, strange intimations of supernaturally-tinted evil. I’m not sucked in yet, but I would like to visit Hawaii.

My real generalization: happiness is what you make it. Don’t guess it takes a philosopher to recognize that. But maybe it does take just a little maturity, at least in the chronological (if not also the emotional) sense. Did you see the headline? Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says.

Worry stays fairly steady until 50, then sharply drops off. Anger decreases steadily from 18 on, and sadness rises to a peak at 50, declines to 73, then rises slightly again to 85. Enjoyment and happiness have similar curves: they both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly at the end, but they never again reach the low point of our early 50s.

That’s really great news.

Muslim spirit

February 18, 2010

Muslim spirituality occasionally strikes some of us as, um, immoderate. Immodestly so.

Burqas and hijabs are an ironic symbol of the inconsistency between modesty on behalf of the natural human form, and immodest assertions of  exceptionalism descending from the One True Prophet’s world-deploring prohibitions.* Ophelia Benson is moved to ask “Does God Hate Women?” and to “examine the role of religions in the subordination, control, concealment, and punishment of women, from Vatican lectures on the female nature to sharia-based stoning.” In particular, women under theocracy “have few if any rights, they are kept out of school as children, they are illiterate, they receive less food than men however hard they work, they are confined to the house or required to wear stifling, movement-inhibiting clothing if they go outside, they are denied medical treatment, they are forbidden to vote or drive cars, and they are whipped or beaten if they disobey.”

*But note: many Muslim women bristle at what they regard as westerners’ misinformed advocacy of their “liberation.”

But there is, it turns out, a much stronger tradition of Muslim doubt than is widely appreciated. Bertrand Russell‘s “Why I am not a Christian” actually has an Islamic imitator, Ibn Warraq (a nom de plume), who challenges the faith’s dogma about the Koran’s inerrancy in “Why I am Not a Muslim.” [His comment on the Fort Hood Tragedy and the “Root Cause Fallacy“]

Holy Books are human documents, without exception. Far from revering the Bible as untouchable, many prominent and pious Christians through the centuries have openly challenged its authenticity. Thomas Jefferson even took scissors to it, snipping all the supernatural bits.

The Muslim Holy Book is no different. “Indeed, the Koran could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination… ‘if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.’ If this is the case, why is the impression abroad, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, that we not only know what the Koran is, but what it says? The explanation lies in the fact that once the Koran existed, in some form or another, not necessarily the form we know today, people began to make up stories about it…” What the Koran Really Says

The good news: there is  a rich heritage of free inquiry in the medieval Muslim tradition. For instance:

Muhammad al-Warraq referred to God as an idiot, because “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”

And: “People developed the science of astronomy by gazing at the sky, and no prophet was necessary to show them how to gaze… We can know the world on our own.”

Besides Ibn Warraq, the greatest contemporary former Muslim freethinker is probably Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We’ll read her “How (and Why) I Became an Infidel” next month.

Islam’s harshest critic among the New Atheists, here sounding quite measured and temperate, is Hitch (A&S students: don’t forget to look at his Omar Khayyam selection in PA):


February 2, 2010

(Happy Groundhog Day! Rise and shine, Hitch, it’s time to get out of Punxsutawney. Remember, Phil’s only a god. Not the God…)

Christopher Hitchens is the Bad Boy of New Atheism, the most strident,visible non-accommodationist out there. He stands to Dawkins roughly as T.H. Huxley stood to Darwin, a bulldog and verbal brawler who loves polemical confrontation and takes no prisoners, a lightning rod who seems only more energized by reciprocal jolts of scorn and hostility.

Dawkins is nobody’s wallflower, but next to Hitchens he’s positively courtly.

So it might seem a challenge to find in Hitchens a continuation of the positive theme we’ve been accentuating with all our A&S authors so far. More than anyone, Hitchens has earned the reputation and perpetuated the stereotype of atheist-as-naysayer, and of atheism as  a negative and depleted worldview.

And yet, his editor’s introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer commences with a nod to Albert Camus’ Dr. Rieux (“The Plague”): there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Hitchens is not a misanthrope, he is not Schopenhauer.

A couple of pages on, he’s upholding atheism as the impassioned defender of life in our world:  atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it. That’s affirming and positive, no?

And: The Golden Rule is innate in us...the miracle is that there are no miracles or other interruptions of a wondrous natural order. We don’t need ’em, nature’s wonder enough. The onus shifts, from this perspective, to those whose “death wish” is to leave it all behind on a wing and a prayer for an unseen heaven. What’s nihilistic about loving the world?

Hitchens reiterates a Dawkins point that really ought to go far towards neutralizing the stereotype: everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god– from Ra to Shiva– in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in.

He repeats Jonathan Miller’s analogy (I’ve heard this from Sam Harris too): “I do not have a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus.” But then, the fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. A measure of push-back is in order, he’s saying. That’s not pure negativity, it’s strategy.

Then again, his insisting on the more descriptively-accurate moniker “anti-theist” might be construed as a bit gratuitously aggressive. But there’s a positive rationale, to distinguish his view from that of atheists who say that they wish the fable were true. That’s the utter negation of human freedom, which we should be happy to repudiate.

Human life is worth living, on its own terms. And what lovely terms they are, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime and none of them implicated in the supernatural or the oppressions of the coercive-communal: the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature; the consolation and irony of philosophy; the infinite splendors of literature and poetry; the grand resource of art and music and architecture. You can love the Parthenon without joining the cult of Athena.

Hitchens shares Dawkins’ anger about childhood indoctrination, inflicting the terrors of hellfire upon the most innocent, trusting, and vulnerable members of our species. At least the Vatican’s put Limbo on the shelf.

But he also appreciates the power of gentle humor to deconstruct theistic pretense. Why wouldn’t an all-knowing creator reveal some knowledge we might recognize as beyond the ken of uneducated bronze-age shepherds?

Hitchens has no use for Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria or for theistic evolution in general. Either one attributes one’s presence here to the laws of biology and physics, or one attributes it to a divine design. If you try to have it both ways you must embrace what he caricatures as a most ridiculous scenario: for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then– and only in the last six thousand years at the very least– decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem… The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief.

Hitchens’ combative posture, let’s admit, makes for entertaining spectacle. But will it succeed strategically, in winning non-theists a more prominent and respected  voice in the public discourse of our times? Can it be balanced and modulated by the more temperate tones of a Sweeney or a Hecht or… or who? Where will the next generation of Sagans and Goulds come from, when the time for armed resistance has passed?

Here he defends the subtitle of his God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?