If you’ve got a rainy or volcanic ash-blighted afternoon to kill you could do worse than type ‘Hitchens versus Hitchens’ into Youtube and watch Christopher and Peter debate Iraq and God in 14 fun-sized chunks. Chris Hitchens is a brilliant debater – a brilliant man - but he always needs to go too far. This need is pathological but it’s the essential element of his Hitchness so complaining about it is beside the point. It does mean, however, that even when he’s absolutely right he always says something absolutely wrong.
Chris isn’t keen on religion. He hates God and also disbelieves in Him, so at root he only differs from the most tediously predictable atheists in terms of style (for which reason I shouldn’t be surprised if he does eventually change to either a more moderate or more idiosyncratic position if only to escape the consensus; in fact, I’m tempted to speculate that he would be much less hardline if he didn’t reside in the US, where he can still just about provoke a bit of outrage by being so; whereas over here the best way to create a row is to defend God-bothering).
We can divide his position into the atheist parts and the anti-theist parts. Obviously we’re talking about the Abrahamic monotheist faiths here – Hindus don’t get much of a mention. Hitchens does the atheist bit - ie. exposing the absurdity of literal belief in the stuff of the Bible- with great aplomb. Meh. Aren’t we past all that? Really, how many believers operating in Hitchens’ sphere of pontification literally buy it all without doubts that can vary from troubling to severe to total? Hardcore Born-Agains, perhaps, as best they can, but their faith always looks brittle and not much more interesting than any cult or reality-avoidance method.
The sophisticate columnist/debater’s battleground today, surely, is in the question of whether religion, regardless of the truth-value of its tenets, really does Poison Everything. There seem to be three main strands in Hitchens’ anti-theism.
The first is that organised religion is responsible for all of history’s violence and genocide and exploitation and filth and horror and squalor. His response to the Stalin/Mao/Hitler objection is to make a historical argument that Communism and Fascism were supported by various establishment Churches (Papists mainly), and then a philosophical argument that Communism and Fascism are themselves religions anyway. Surely he must feel himself treading from the solid ground of straightforward atheism onto the wobbly wooden bridge of semantic dubiousness here, but he persists with vehemence. The refusal to accept that both God-fearing and Godless humans are perfectly capable of great evil is his most obvious tumble into the Hitchens trap of Going Too Far and harms his seriousness. But that’s a hundred other posts at least.
The second strand of Christopher’s anti-theism is what I would crudely term the Swinging Dick approach. To worship an omnipotent, omniscient God is to be a serf, a sheep, a slave, a sop and a sucker. In other words, to be the opposite of The Hitch, fearless intellectual gunslinger, alone in a cold universe and kickin’ ass. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the Hitch has been inside the Total Perspective Vortex; he knew his place in the vast emptiness and liked what he saw. And if being an existential hero just happens to irresistible to the chicks, who is he to argue? The trouble with the Swinging Dick position is that it can lead to contempt; it conjures up the Ubermensch and Ayn Rand, or other unpleasant anti-human follies. This is because most humans are not Swinging Dicks and the Superman is a myth.
The third strand is the problem of evil (or the problem of suffering) which, he argues, makes the worship of an omnipotent God repulsive. Hitch goes for this at full throttle with the case of Elizabeth Fritzl. What could be more disgusting than your worship of a God who sits and looks on with folded arms as Josef Fritzl descends to his cellar once again? Imagine how many times Elizabeth must have prayed, unanswered, while God declined to intervene for 24 years. But this is an ancient problem within faiths and the anti-theist who believes that religion poisons everything should show why the post-God world he wishes to bring about offers something better or at least no worse to sufferers. In the believers’ universe, Elizabeth can at least hope for a better break in the afterlife, and for justice for Josef. In Hitch’s universe even this feeble consolation is denied. Life really is indifferent and there will be no more breaks. Of course, The Hitch can handle the cold truth but then he’s a Swinging Dick.
Hitchens and Dawkins argue that religion needs to disappear for the progress and evolution of humanity, yet the suspicion for an evolutionist must be that religion persists because it is in some way beneficial (Dawkins’ virus theory is wobblier than the Communism = Religion one). If religion could be destroyed it would soon be invented again because humans are not Swinging Dicks and by and large they appear to need some kind of organised Hope in order to function in this sorry imperfect world. Hitchens can’t directly advocate banning religion because he distinguishes his own post-religious utopia from the ‘religion’ of Stalinism by explaining that his is based on the principles of democratic liberal secular humanism. Inherent in that, if it is to be worth anything, is the refusal to persecute people for what they believe. So he must drive religion away by appeal to each listener’s good sense and better nature, with argument and reason, and with ridicule and accusations of evil. Good luck with that. Strange how many of those calling themselves ‘humanists’ want to eradicate a persistent and fundamental part of humanity.
The conclusion of all of which, therefore, is that if the Hitch were here, swinging his dick or otherwise, I would put it to him that while you can be both a humanist and an atheist, you cannot coherently be both a humanist and an anti-theist. Then I would take cover while he commenced kicking my ass.