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.

You seem to enjoy talking about the virgin birth. It comes up quite a lot in your book and your debates.

I was on the radio with some talk show host in Seattle who turned out to be Catholic. I found it out this way: I said, “Find me anyone who believes in the virgin birth. I just don’t believe anyone believes in it.” And he said, “I do.”

I said, “No you don’t. No you don’t, you’re just saying it!” And he said, “Yes, I do. I believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ.” And I said, “I hate to tell you this, but the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ is not the same as the virgin birth. The immaculate conception is the conception of the Virgin Mary. She was immaculately conceived, because she had to be conceived originally without sin. It’s a quite different thing from the virgin birth.”

There was a slight pause. I said, “Well, so is there anything else you truly believe while we’re at it? You’ve been believing that when it’s not the teaching of the Church. You probably would have believed in limbo when they told you to. Now they tell you you don't have to. What if the teachings change again? It’s nonsense! It’s come to something when I have to tell you what the Catholic teaching is on births and conceptions.”

I read in the New York Times that you do like to bring your children up with some modicum of religious education. I’d be interested to know what the Christopher Hitchens Sunday School looks like.

It would be the King James Bible. Of course, the Church of England doesn’t bother with it anymore. They have some happy, crappy new book. But if you don’t know what’s in King James and how it sounds, you won’t understand a lot of what’s in Shakespeare or Milton or John Donne or George Herbert, to name only a few examples. Enormous numbers of phrases in common use would be opaque to you. You wouldn’t know where they came from. They would be empty.

Look, religion was our first attempt at philosophy. It was the first and the worst, but it’s still part of our history and tradition. As it is, children don’t know where anything comes from—they don’t know the literary canon or the historical record. So I think to be religiously literate is very important.

I also think if you start showing them the stuff as they approach the age of literacy and reason, there isn’t the slightest chance they’re going to believe in it. If Antonia speaks up and asks, “Daddy, what’s this about killing all the baby boys in Egypt?” I just say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

You found out a few years ago that you’re technically Jewish.

As is Carol. We do a rather vestigial Passover seder so our daughter knows what the tradition is.

What value do you find in that?

The value in celebrating the murder of Egyptian children? I don’t think very much. But it is a tradition.

You drop the wine on the plate? You dip parsley in salt water?

A bit of lamb, a bit of sauce. My mother-in-law is quite good at doing it. And we have Polish-Jewish cousins who have a nice way of doing it as well. It’s up to Antonia whether she wants to get more interested at a certain point.

I have to ask you about Chapter 17 of your book. It's all about Hitler and Stalin, an attempt to disprove that their evil was purely secular. Can you summarize that argument for me?

From the archives:

"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church" (October 1999)
Some in the Vatican want to make Pius XII a saint. If they succeed, "the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie." By James Carroll

Whenever anyone argues that the world would be better off without religion, religious people usually point to Stalinism, and Nazism. Well, fascism is another name for what the Catholic right wing did in the ’20s and ’30s in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Austria. You could drop the word “fascism” and say “the Catholic right wing.” It was a reaction to Bolshevism—Judeo-Bolshevism, actually—and a reteaching of church ideas. That was Hitler’s model.

Now, Hitler clearly did have the wish to replace all religion with the worship of Aryan-Norse blood myths and bizarre mysticism culminating in the Führer principle. But he never abandoned the church. He certainly never abandoned his restless search for its support.

But he didn’t promote Christian ideas.

No, you couldn’t say that. Real Nazi members, when they got married, would have some wild Aryan ceremony with daggers and banners and invocations of God-knows-what myth. Not secular. Pagan, you could say—Nordic-pagan. But certainly not secular.

And there was much praise for the church’s attitude to the Jews. Even beyond the end, the Vatican protected members of the Third Reich in political slums it was helping to run in South America. So that’s not secular at all.

As for Japan, the third member of the triptych of the Nazi axis, the head of state was not the head of the church, but he was a god—worshiped not unlike the godhead of North Korea, which is only one short of the Trinity, with Father and Son. It’s an order of worship that is enacted every day. You have to praise the leader all the time, in every department of culture and education, from dawn till dusk.

It’s funny—they say the births of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il were attended by miraculous events like the singing of birds, which I can tell you birds don’t do in North Korea. It was on some magic mountain and so on. So they have all of that. Miraculous births are absolutely necessary for any religion. They don’t say they’ll follow you after your death. They don’t go that far. But neither does Judaism.

And how do you explain Stalin?

In 1917 in Russia, millions and millions of people had been told for hundreds and hundreds of years that the head of state was divine. The czar was also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the “Little Father.” If you were Joseph Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t see there’s a huge opportunity. A huge reservoir of credulity and servility has been gifted to you by the previous regime. So what happens? Inquisition, heresy hunts, worship of the supreme leader, and miracles—giant tomatoes. Whatever it is, it isn’t secular.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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