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.

How are you defining “secular,” then? As a synonym for “free-thinking”?

Just that if you wanted to talk about secular government, you’d have to point to a government that built all its institutions on the teachings of Spinoza and Darwin and Einstein and Jefferson.

America basically tried to do that.

Yes, America is the closest example. But because religion entered into it—bringing slavery and genocide and so on—I don’t think you can point to it.

All of these explanations sound a bit complicated to me. If I can borrow Ockham’s razor from you for a moment…

No, you shouldn’t be borrowing it. You should have it always by your person!

All right, here it is: the fact that all these totalitarian regimes keep popping up, with or without religion, just shows that people have a tendency toward hero worship, and leaders have a tendency to corrupt that power. Religion might be a tool that leaders can use. But it’s awfully tricky to find religious motives behind every anti-religious dictatorship.

You’re quite right. Atheism is a necessary condition for emancipation of the mind, but it’s not a sufficient one. You can free yourself from superstition and still end up a nihilist or a hedonist or a Stalinist. What’s innate in our species isn’t the fault of religion. But the bad things that are innate in our species are strengthened by religion and sanctified by it. The fact is, we are a mammalian species one half-chromosome away from chimpanzees, and it shows. Curing ourselves of religion is only a small step along the road. Fortunately, our brains seem to be evolving.

We also have a tendency toward being tribalistic. Your book blames the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia on religious fanaticism, but isn’t religion, in those cases, part of a larger tribal instinct?

Yes. Religion isn’t the cause of it, but it’s a powerful reinforcement. There’s a huge divide between the people of North Carolina and South Carolina over what constitutes a proper barbeque. And indeed, football rivalries in Texas. However, if everyone in those towns was a member of a different faith, you’d find it wasn’t so funny. It would get very nasty.

There would be football rivalries in Glasgow no matter what, but they’ve been made much, much worse by the fact that it’s Rangers against Celtic, Protestant against Catholic. And that’s within the dialogue of just only one stupid monotheism. They’re willing to kill about that. They don’t care about Islam or Judaism. They only care about being the right kind of Christian.

So religion is a very powerful re-enforcer of our backward, clannish, tribal element. But you can’t say it’s the cause of it. To the contrary, it’s the product of it. It’s the deification of it.

Hamas has a strong religious element, but the clashes in Gaza almost seemed like an ultra-violent turf war.

Dreadful. Just dreadful.

You’ve had some strong opinions on the Palestinian situation in the past. Do you think Israel and the West are doing the right thing in supporting Abbas?

I don’t think so. I think they should have long been trying to build up the Barghouti forces. Not Marwan Barghouti, but Mustafa Barghouti and the Palestinian left. I think it’s too late now. The Palestinian left has been destroyed between the machine of Fatah and the Islamic Jihad. It used to be quite strong. The Saudis have also poured a lot of money into infiltrating the Palestinian movement, and it worked. And then the Israelis made the stupid mistake of trying to play one group against another. I bet they regret that now.

That’s an old British tactic, isn’t it? Divide and conquer?

From the archives:

"The Perils of Partition" (March 2003)
Our author examines the political—and literary—legacy of Britain's policy of "divide and quit." By Christopher Hitchens

Pakistan is the result of it. Of the two states that were created by partition in 1948, Pakistan is by far the most menacing. And it sickens me to find that everyone wants to change the subject to Israel. I know what the criticisms are, and I agree with a lot of them. But still, if a British group were boycotting Pakistan the way they did Israel, I’d be impressed. And I know that’s not going to happen. It makes me suspicious.

I’m not like Abe Foxman. I don’t go looking for things to complain about. But you don’t have to! It’s plain as can be. Let’s change the subject to the Jews. No thank you! It angers me, actually!

Do you think Abbas will be able to work with secular Arabs in the West Bank?

Well, that’s what the test should be. The only test that’s being applied is willingness to cooperate with the Israelis, which is only one of the necessary tests. For a long time, because of the Cold War, the United States unfortunately paid no attention at all to the secular left in the Arab or Persian world. The main thing was to destroy the left, so as a result, we made far too many compromises with religious forces. This is part of the price of that.

There don’t seem to be many prominent secular voices in the Arab world.

There are more than you think. There are quite a lot in Iran. They’ve had the longest experience with theocracy, and they’re really through with it. And Algeria and Tunisia—these are people who have an idea of what it might be like to live under these characters, and they’re not willing to do it. And there are more and more of those voices among the European Muslim population. They’re our hope. Our only hope, actually. 

When you mentioned the ideal atheist government a moment back, you brought up Spinoza, Darwin, Einstein, and Jefferson.

By the way, Martha Nussbaum would maintain that neither Einstein nor Spinoza were exactly atheists. They were pantheists, possibly. They didn’t believe in a personal God, so they were not religious. But they may have had a belief in a deity. I’d like to start with making a distinction between the two things, because it could be that many people were, like Jefferson and Paine, deists, because it seemed so improbable that all of this was an accident. You can believe that if you like. But you have all your work still ahead of you in showing that God is aware of your existence.

In any case, these were brilliant, highly educated men. How would mass-atheism play out in societies where people live in small villages and center their lives around their families and the cycles of the seasons?

There’s a film—I’ve never seen it—about a village atheist in America. At one point, there’s some incredible thunderstorm or some other apocalyptic event that makes it seem as though the Second Coming really is about to happen. Everyone’s incredibly impressed. And even he thinks it seems to be true. But he keeps muttering as these events unfold, “But where did Cain get his wife?”

All the old questions have to occur to you when you read the Bible. Maybe you can’t read, but you hear the story—wait a minute, there are only two guys in the world, and their parents, and then one of them finds a wife. Where did she come from? Once you’ve thought it, you can’t unthink it.

Now a disagreement I’ve had with Dawkins—whose work is incredibly important to us all—and with Daniel Dennett, too, is about whether atheists should rename themselves as “brights.” I disagree with this completely because it exactly materializes what believers think of us, that we’re some sort of snobbish elite. And it has the further implication that you have to be smart to see through religion. I know for certain that that’s not true. Many, many people are made—as I am—unable to believe. They just can’t bring themselves to do it.

I think people are naturally revolted by obscurantism and obfuscation. For whatever reasons, at any rate, there have been many times in history where mass movements of people have burned the churches down. People who were quite unlettered would think, “All of this is quite untrue.”

So what was your overall goal in writing this book? One reviewer, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wonders if your “grand strategy is to taunt religion so mercilessly that it packs its bags and storms, red faced, out of the cosmos.”

That’s nonsense. I don’t suggest anything of the sort. Religion is ineradicable. There shouldn’t be any attempt to eradicate it. I wouldn’t have asked people to come and debate with me if that’s how I felt.

But if religion is really as horrifying as you say it is, how could there not be a need to eradicate it?

There could be some occasions where we’d say, “Okay, that’s enough.” After all, Christians are warned in advance, “Expect people to laugh at you, because what you believe is really extraordinary.” I always bring that up to the Catholic Defense League. They’re always writing letters of complaint. I ask, “Why are you doing this? Your religion warned you that you would be ridiculed. You should accept it gratefully and not be filing hate speech complaints, you idiot.”

The first hope I had for the book was that it would put some hope into the growing atheist secular movement.

“Atheist secular” as opposed to what kind of secular?

According to Pew, the fastest-growing group in America are those who claim no religious affiliation. There are more of us than there are Jews or Muslims, and it’s growing quite fast. But the number of people who say they’re atheists is still quite small. The atheist core are my constituency. Just yesterday, a bunch of them turned up at that show with Al Sharpton. They all had this sense of emancipation. Two years ago, you wouldn’t have gotten that. And it’s because of Dawkins and Sam Harris and others like them who are speaking up.

Did you happen to see that South Park episode about Dawkins? One of the kids ends up in a future civilization where Dawkins has successfully eradicated all religion—but as a result, there's now a group of atheist sea otters fighting two other atheist groups over who has the most logical answer to the “Great Question.”

Until about 10 years ago, the main figure in American atheism was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She was a madwoman who, they say, kept all her money in gold bars—portable, small ones. The whole thing became quite hysterical, and she ended up being killed for her money. It became another cult. I used to get their bulletin, and I stopped reading it after a while. Among other things, I thought they had a tinge of anti-Catholic paranoia. They would sell books about the secret Vatican world government, that sort of thing. It had a crackpot fringe.

It won’t happen this time. It’s more serious. It just is. I got an invitation from a group called the Atheist Alliance—they’re holding a conference in Washington in the fall, where Harris and Dawkins and Dennett and myself are all going to be. And Matthew Chapman, Darwin’s great-great grandson, who has done a brilliant book about the Pennsylvania case, and maybe Victor Stenger. Whatever you think of us, we’re not a completely negligible crew. It’s not what you think, it’s how you think that’s important.

In your book, you write that human beings would do better to leave the church and gaze through the Hubble telescope or study a strand of DNA. You use the word “awe” to describe your reaction to these scientific phenomena. What would you say you’re in awe of?

It’s a version of the thing I say elsewhere, which is that my definition of an educated person is that you have some idea how ignorant you are.

Explain how that’s a pleasant experience.

It’s when you’re standing there on the verge of something that’s almost incomprehensible—when you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon peering down, thinking, “What the hell is that?”

Would you call it the sublime?

Call it transcendent if you like. If you watch the sunset while listening to the “Missa Solemnis,” then you can certainly call it transcendent. As long as it’s not supernatural. There’s no need for the supernatural. The natural is wonderful enough. As Einstein said, “The wonderful thing is there are no miracles.” The laws of nature work all the time. We can’t understand them all, but we know they are intelligible. There’s something extraordinary at work that holds it all in place.

The best way you could put it is that there couldn’t be any suspension of those laws to benefit someone who prayed, for the sun to stand still while he finished his battle. No. That would be trivial compared to the extraordinary consistency and harmony that does seem to apply to the laws of physics. That’s beautiful. And religion is an obstacle to our seeing that. 

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

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