On Christopher Hitchens

A brief antidote to the generally (and rightly) glowing tributes that have been paid to the Hitch.

Let me first declare that I am not a Christopher Hitchens scholar. I have read only one of his books, God Is Not Great. (A terrific read if you get the chance.)

However, I have read a fair amount about the man, and I have also watched many of his debates and TV appearances on the internet, so I feel I have as much right as anyone else to express some thoughts about him.

I recently enjoyed watching the two ‘Four Horsemen’ discussions between Hitchens and his fellow ‘New Atheists’, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. They are each an hour long. Part One is here and Part Two is here. I suggest watching these over the festive period in lieu of a couple of excruciatingly dull Top Gear repeats on Dave.

In a funny way, watching these men sit around the table, debating, drinking and eating snacks (and Hitchens smoking) reminded me of a Bertolt Brecht play I studied for German ‘A’ Level called Der gute Mensch von Sezuan.

That play features amongst its characters three gods with different personalities, ranging from the harsh and literal to the understanding and practical. If I were to describe the Four Horsemen in these discussions I would say Dawkins and Dennett are traditional and measured, though Dennett is probably the cuddlier of the two (probably on account of his beard). Harris is calm and precise and, although he allows himself the occasional indulgence by way of a sortie into mysticism, he never loses his rational focus. Hitchens is slightly unpredictable, controversial and – it must be said – somewhat dominating and interrupting.

Both sessions make for compelling viewing and I especially like the way each of the participants genuinely examines his own positions on matters of religion, deliberately looking for fault lines like a diligent builder inspecting his work.

At 09:45 of Part Two, Hitchens asks whether they will see a world without faith.  He clearly says he hopes not, as he will miss the debates. The other participants seem surprised at this and they spend some time discussing the point.

To my mind this is actually an immoral position to take if, like Hitchens, you assert that religion is harmful. In fact, Hitchens described himself as an antitheist as opposed to a mere atheist, and the full name of the above book is God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

From his Wikipedia page:

Hitchens said that a person “could be an atheist and wish that belief in god were correct”, but that “an antitheist, a term I’m trying to get into circulation, is someone who is relieved that there’s no evidence for such an assertion.”

Not only is his desire to apparently artificially preserve religion immoral, it is also selfish: let others continue to live in blind ignorance and be harmed so that my theatrical debating skills may remain razor-sharp.

Whether the world will ever rid itself of religion is a question worthy of discussion, and as Hitchens notes at 10:05 of Part Two, the human species has a Freudian fear of extinction which might ultimately make this unlikely.

Even if humans were to dispose of the need for religion, though, or at least its harmful and theocratic manifestations, I would say there is no reason why the previous arguments for and against it (in terms of its truth claims and also its desirability) could not be preserved beyond that timeframe. Nor is there any reason why those arguments could not, as Hitchens wishes at 11:12 of Part Two, continue to be refined – or exposed – to an ever-greater degree of sophistication.

If religion’s wings are eventually successfully clipped, one could argue the practical imperative for highlighting its inadequacies and inconsistencies diminishes to a certain extent, rendering continued discussion obsolete. But I’m not sure about that. The end of a tyranny or injustice – Nazism, slavery, apartheid, religion in many forms – does not mean there is no danger of its return, or nothing for future generations to learn.

Just as we continue to discuss the works of Christopher Hitchens after his demise, so we shall, and so we must, continue to discuss the perils and benefits – if any – of religion long after the unpleasant and unwelcome tentacles of the rabbi and of the priest and of the imam have been vigorously pruned back.

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