Interviews July 2007

Transcending God

Christopher Hitchens on his beef with religion, his faith in mankind, and his new bestselling book, God Is Not Great.
book cover

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything Click the title
to buy this book]

by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group
307 pages

It’s an image that could make the most hardened cynic smile: a miniature Christopher Hitchens, fair-haired and apple-cheeked, trotting across a meadow in ankle-strap sandals. It’s a gentle season in a gentle era. Britain has won the war, the ruins have been repaired—the Dartmoor ponies are grazing, the grass is lush and verdant. Nine-year-old Christopher is excelling at school and has a special fondness for Bible studies. By all appearances, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. 

On this particular outing, Christopher’s religion instructor, a kindly old widow, is using the natural surroundings to demonstrate God’s love for humankind. In His infinite kindness, she explains, He made the grass green, a color that would please and soothe the human eye. “I simply knew,” Hitchens would later write, “almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences.” In the green fields of England, an atheist is born.

Fast-forward half a century, and the child skeptic has grown up to be a formidable iconoclast. With his razor-sharp wit and blatant disregard for all things sacred, Hitchens seems, as one L.A. Weekly writer put it, “capable of pissing into your grandmother’s fish tank.” Some would deem this an understatement. In 2003, Hitchens met with a Vatican panel in an effort to stop a certain Nobel Prize–winning nun from achieving sainthood. During a recent appearance at the New York Public Library, his very first utterance was a comment on Mother Teresa’s beatification: “The old bitch got it anyway.”

Mother Teresa is in good company. Hitchens’s latest book, God Is Not Great, attacks the authority of every religious figure from the Lubavicher Rebbe to Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi comes across as a divisive figure whose legacy is “a dubious rather than a saintly one.” The Dalai Lama is painted as an exiled king who anoints Hollywood stars as enlightened beings. Jesus is portrayed as “a rather rigid Jewish sectarian” whose statements range from the innocuous to the immoral. As for Mohammed, Hitchens finds his teachings to be such a hodgepodge of ideas that he hesitates to even call them a religion. (This provocative viewpoint is the subject of an entire chapter entitled, “The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths.”)

Such gasp-eliciting proclamations have earned the book a blizzard of media coverage and a high-ranking spot on the New York Times bestseller list. But underneath all the blasphemy is a quieter sort of indignation. God does not bother Hitchens so much as the suggestion that human beings cannot make ethical decisions without consulting an instruction manual. “However little one thinks of the Jewish tradition,” he writes of the Ten Commandments, “it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”

Although Hitchens can be fiercely combative in public debate, he is cordial and respectful in private conversation. A cigarette in his mouth and an ever-present glass of Scotch in his hand, he listens carefully to each question and pauses thoughtfully before venturing a reply. He is willing to change his mind: a former Marxist who once co-edited a book with Edward Said, he has lately irked his leftist colleagues by supporting the Iraq War. His desk is piled high with atheist tomes by Daniel Dennett and H. L. Mencken, but he relishes his friendships with religious neighbors and often socializes with them late into the night. If he follows any creed, it is the Enlightenment belief that all people have an innate ability to uncover self-evident truths and distinguish right from wrong. For a man who is frequently labeled a misanthrope, Christopher Hitchens has an unexpected faith in humankind.

In addition to his regular book reviews for The Atlantic, Hitchens writes a column for Vanity Fair and contributes to a wide range of other publications. He is currently editing The Portable Atheist, a collection of “essential readings for the non-believer” due out in November. We spoke on June 29th at his apartment in northwest Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife, Carol Blue, and his daughter, Antonia.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens
(Photo by Christian Witkin)

I happened to catch you on Hardball last night with Al Sharpton.

There was quite an atmosphere. I like these outdoor things with the crowd and the heat and so on. But what a clown the guy is—a vulgar clown.

I also followed your debate with him at The New York Public Library. He made the argument that your book should have been called Organized Religion Is Not Great rather than God Is Not Great, since your issue is with the structures of religion, not with actual faith in the Divine. 

I think we can say with reasonable certainty that there is no God because all the hypotheses for it have been exploded or abandoned. We have better explanations for the things religion used to try and explain. But we can’t disprove the existence of a deity. So if someone says, “Well, I just feel the presence of a strong force”—well, okay. I sort of know what they’re going through. As long as they don’t try to teach it to my children, or get the law changed to suit their opinion, or blow themselves up at the airport.

I’ve learned a lot from doing the tour, because I’ve had a debate with some religious person at every stop. What I haven’t had from anyone, in print or in person, is any argument that surprised me, that I couldn’t have completely predicted.

But were you surprised by arguments they didn’t make? You seemed taken aback by how much Sharpton agreed with you on certain issues.

I debated a guy named Mark Roberts, Hugh Hewitt’s choice of pastor. Hewitt is a major Christian broadcaster and he said, “I’m going to put up a champion against you.” I said, “Bring it on!” So I asked this guy, Roberts, “Do you believe St. Matthew when he describes the crucifixion and says all of the graves of Jerusalem opened and all the corpses walked around greeting their old friends?”

And he answered too quickly. He said, “Yes, I do, of course I do. I’m a Christian—I have to believe it.” But he added, “As a historian, I’m not absolutely sure.” I said, “Thanks for that. I must say, it's the most incredible answer I ever heard.”

The guy spent half the time saying that a great deal of what I wrote in the book is right. Several of them have done that. Which is enjoyable.

Is it enjoyable, though? Or do you secretly find it disappointing?

Well, you sometimes feel as if you’re punching the air. You wish they’d say, “No, excuse me, John Calvin was right, and you’re going to hell, buster.” But they don’t do that. They won’t do that in front of an intelligent audience. They may privately think it, but they don’t bloody say it.

And I know quite a lot about what they believe. There was one guy in Illinois who was a professor of theology and an ordained minister. He said, “You know, I was amazed. You had things in your book about our beliefs that I thought only a few people knew.” He said this on the air on Christian Science Monitor Radio.

I thought, “This is becoming disappointing. Why can’t I get someone to stand up and say, ‘Yes. Of course there was an impregnation of a Palestinian virgin by the Divine 2,000 years ago, and that proves the truth of Christ's doctrines. And not only that—he died for your sins. And if you don’t acknowledge this, you’ve missed your chance of going to heaven, and you’ve doubled your chance of going to hell.’” No one will do it.

What about the question of morality without God? Al Sharpton spent a lot of time grilling you on that. And it was also a major theme in your email debate with the Christian author Douglas Wilson at Christianity Today.

Weird guy.

Wilson insisted that if you took Jesus out of the equation, the words “right” or “wrong” would have no meaning. Thoughts in the brain would just be a series of chemical reactions, like bubbles in a soft drink. As he put it, “If you were to take a bottle of Mountain Dew and another of Dr. Pepper, shake them vigorously, and put them on a table, it would not occur to anyone to ask which one is ‘winning the debate.’ They aren't debating; they are just fizzing.”

What he’s saying is that if he ceases to believe in Jesus, he’s going to instantly become an immoral person. It’s a terrible admission to have made! It’s an awful insult to human self-respect to say that. And they don’t seem to understand that they give themselves over in that way. It’s like saying that nothing would stop me from raping you now if I weren’t under the supervision of a heavenly dictator. And I have a higher opinion of myself than that.

Are you suggesting that you have more faith in human nature than religious people do?

Well, I'll put it this way: you can certainly say belief in God makes people behave worse. That can be proved beyond a doubt. Whether it makes them behave better or not, I don’t think is so easy to prove. Because you can’t be certain that their belief is what made them dive in front of a truck to save a child’s life. They might say, “I did it for Jesus,” but they might have done it anyway.

I’m not so sure about that. I know Mother Teresa isn’t your favorite…

Oh, well, that’s easy! All the wicked things she did…

But her nuns were willing to pick lepers off the street, to devote their lives to the people no one else in society would touch. And they seemed to do it with genuine respect and dignity.

I know people who do that. I’ve been to Uganda and to North Korea and to Eritrea, countless horror spots around the world. Everywhere you go, you meet volunteers who are giving up their lives for other people. Most of them are secular. I don’t think that proves anything about secularism. But the ordinary action of helping a fellow creature in distress doesn’t require faith at all. It just doesn’t.

However, the evil things missionaries do are definitely done because of religion. When Mother Teresa said abortion and contraception were equivalent to murder and were the greatest threat to world peace—nobody could have said anything with such wicked consequences! She tried to demolish the only cure for poverty that we know for sure exists, which is the empowerment of women. I’m not particularly a feminist, but if you get women off the animal cycle of reproduction and give them some say in how many children they’ll have, immediately the floor will rise. And if you throw a handful of seeds and some credit to these ladies, the village will be transformed in a couple of years.

Mother Teresa spent her entire life trying to make that impossible. I would say that millions of people are much worse off for her efforts. On an Irish radio show on a recent Sunday morning, I said, “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” You couldn’t have said that a few years ago. You would have gotten a terrible pasting for it. But now, everybody knows it’s true. They see through this stuff.

One complaint you’ve gotten a lot is that you lump all religious people together, throwing the moderates in with the extremists. What’s your opinion on Unitarians, for instance?

They say Unitarians believe in one God maximum. And they do produce the Jefferson Bible. They keep it in print. Good.

I once read that only six percent of Unitarians consider God to be their primary religious motivation. Most of them are more focused on social justice and community service.

I’ve spoken at Unitarian churches very often. It seems to me, again, that they don’t give me enough to disagree with. But as for lumping them in, I’ll say this. Have you read Camus’s La Peste? At the end, the plague is over, the nightmare has dissipated, the city has returned to health. Normality has resumed. But he ends by saying that underneath the city, in the pipes and in the sewers, the rats were still there. And they’d one day send their vermin up again to die on the streets of a free city.

That’s how I feel about religion. Thanks to advances of science, education, political tolerance, pluralism and so on, religion can now be one option among many—who cares who’s a Unitarian or who’s a Congregationalist? But in the texts, the actual texts, there is always this toxin that’s ready to be revived. What I say is, “Do you believe this stuff or don’t you?” In other words, “In what respect are you different from a humanist?” The authority of the texts is always on the side of the extremists, because they do say what they say. So be aware of this danger. That’s all I’m arguing.

But if religion is a human invention, can’t people reinvent their religion? Don’t people have the power to infuse new meaning into old words?

Yes. I realized on this book tour that I would have to write a different book for every person I met, because they all take religion à la carte.

I mean, sure. No two people see the world in exactly the same way.

This is further proof that it’s manmade. The fact that everyone has now the right to invent their own creed is a point for me rather than a point for them.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In