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.

Reform Jews do believe that the Bible was written by humans. Should Reform Judaism still be called a religion?

Well, that’s honestly what I wonder, whether it should be in that case, or whether it’s just a social club. There, I almost sympathize with the people who say, “Well, it’s not heresy, but it’s just another name for hedonism or believing whatever you like.” I’m okay, you’re okay—that’s not a religion. Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least. People who really live their lives in fear of that—God-fearing, as they used to say—I can respect. People who are somewhere between Unitarianism and Reform Judaism—it just seems weak-minded to me. Why bother?

You mention in the book that some of your most interesting conversations are with religious friends. What do you talk about with them?

My friend Christopher Buckley and I have been discussing religion on and off for years. He’s had all kinds of fluctuations with Catholicism. He’s through with it now. But giving it up was no light matter. We had some very serious discussions about it.

And if I want to borrow a book—any book—that I don’t have myself and need to get hold of quickly, there’s a very ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple in this apartment building, a few floors below me, who would be very likely to have it. They’re highly intellectual, very well read. They’d also be very interested in having a discussion about the book before I gave it back. I’d just have to be careful not to call them on a Friday night because they wouldn’t answer the fucking phone.

Most of my Jewish friends are, like most Jews, non-believers—in fact, very discerningly secular. But these two are very observant. I wouldn’t say very devout, but it means something to them. It’s the continuity of the tradition. I’m not indifferent to that. Not at all.

It’s funny you should mention that, because when I read about your religious crisis at the age of nine, I found myself wondering if you would have been happier in a yeshiva, where you could have questioned everything and analyzed texts to your heart’s content.

My own way of joining a yeshiva was to become a Troskyite, I suppose. I was a member of an extremely Talmudic sect. The leading thinker of our group was a guy called Yigael Gluckstein; he wrote under the name Tony Cliff. There was a very heavy Jewish presence in this group, too. You realized that for many people this was a kind of substitute for the yeshiva. They loved the micro-arguments within Marxism about the nature of the Soviet state: the different theories of bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism, workers’ status—absurd as these discussions would seem to outsiders, absurd as some of them actually were! Yeshivas were very good training, no doubt about it.

I use the word “fundamentalist” as a dismissive term, but actually, those who really struggle with the text, and try and make it come out right, have my respect in a way. Grudgingly. I think it’s sinister, but people who are willing to give a bit of their life to this, to their Torah portion or their Sura—it’s better than breezing along like some nihilist or hedonist.

At the very least, that approach to religion requires a lot of thinking. As one Orthodox rabbi once said to me, “No Jew is infallible. Only the Pope is infallible.”

My favorite time in the cycles of public life is the time when the Pope is dead and they haven’t elected a new one. There's no one in the world who is infallible for those weeks. And you know, I don’t miss it.

There’s one thing I have to ask you about. You mention in the book that Orthodox Jews have sex through a hole in a sheet. As far as I know, that’s an urban legend.

You should see the email I got from my downstairs neighbor about it! I asked him, “Look, someone’s told me this is an urban legend. There’s a film about it, there’s a book about it. How come only now, when I mention it in passing, does it suddenly become such an issue?” His email was wonderful—about three pages worth—including the possibility that some mad rabbi in some shtetl maybe did say something like that.

But I’ve changed it. It’s not in the book now, not in the new editions. And I wish I hadn’t put it in. It was absolutely in passing, and I didn’t need it. When I think of the mikvah, and other Orthodox teachings about women, some of them very obscene, I could have made it much harsher.

Ironically, you've learned a lot about religion in the process of writing this book. And religious people seem more than happy to engage with you about it.

That is actually what impressed me with all these debates on my book tour. I have had almost no refusals. Initially in Atlanta, my publisher said, “We’ve given up. We won’t get anyone. We might not even get a hall in Georgia to do this.” And I said, “No, I bet you we will. They won’t want it said that they refused the challenge.” And actually, they were pretty generous in the end.

According to the Wall Street Journal, you’ve been selling a lot of books in the Bible Belt.

And I promise you, there was no stop where we didn’t have to turn hundreds of people away.

Who were these hundreds of people? Were they atheists? Were they religious people who were angry at you?

No, definitely not. They are people who have had enough.  Particularly in the South, they’re people who don’t like being laughed at by people from the North who think they’re all rednecks and Falwell fanciers. They’re very clear on that. They regard that association as a fucking insult, which it is. Falwell died the week of my swing through the South, making me wonder if someone up there really does like me. So I had to mention it, and I said what I thought about him, and it brought roars of applause. Even the things I said about him that were really, by any standards, quite rude, while the guy’s carcass is hardly cold.

Just look at what’s happened to so-called intelligent design—the Creationist movement. It’s been defeated in every court where it’s been tried—in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, the most conservative district in Pennsylvania around Dover. They’ve been smashed. People don’t want to come from a state they’ll get laughed at for saying they’re from.

From what I’ve read, the judge in the Dover case was actually quite religious himself, which raises another question. There are millions of religious people who would say, “Look, we completely believe in science. But yet, we also have this separate part of our lives that is about ritual and family and personal meaning.” Are you fine with that?

Sure. Those people meet my qualifications. They make it a private belief. The place for religion is in the mind, within the individual. If they insist, it’s within the family, as long as they don’t abuse the children. There are lines they shouldn’t cross: no genital mutilation of people who aren’t qualified to sign an elective surgery form. No, not once, not ever. Preferably, no teaching about hell, I think. But you probably can’t stop people from doing that. No denial of medical care on superstitious grounds. Straight to jail for that. No marrying off your daughters to distant relatives, or not so distant, like the Mormons do.

Last week, I was at Salman Rushdie’s 60th birthday party in London—he was celebrating his knighthood. It was quite a nice evening. Anyhow, I met an interesting Pakastani novelist named Nadeem Aslam. He’s from the Yorkshire towns where a lot of Pakistani Muslims have settled, which is now the hotbed of terrorism in Britian. And he says that something really terrible has happened in this community. Because of their tradition of going back to Pakistan to the same old village, in the most backward part of Pakistan, to get a wife from the tribe and bring her, veiled, back to England, this percentage of the population is responsible for the majority of the deformed births in the country. They’re inbreeding. They're ruining themselves and creating a huge burden for the health and social welfare departments as well. It’s obscene cultism. That bothers me, too. That’s influencing the society I’m living in.

How’s Rushdie doing? There’s been quite a stir surrounding his knighthood.

He’s fine. There was an attempt to jack it up, but it has failed. He was afraid at one point that it would happen again, as it happened before in ’89, that in one of these shops in Pakistan, the police would go nuts and kill a few people. And then the whole thing would take off and there’d be more blood spilled. It didn’t happen, though.

He stayed right here in this apartment when he was still under the fatwa, didn’t he?

He did, yeah. That was when he was on the run. The whole of this front area was a command post with machine guns and dogs and searchlights. There were four hotels that look into this apartment, and they had rooms in each of them.

By “they,” you mean the Secret Service?

It was the Diplomatic Protection Corps. He’d come to visit the White House, so he had to be protected on their dime. They said it was the toughest job they ever had to do because when the Chancellor of Germany is in town, everyone knows she’s in town, so your protection of her doesn’t draw attention to her presence. But they wanted maximum protection—

—and they didn’t want people to ask, “Why are those guys with machine guns standing in that courtyard?”

Yes. Although it got out. Maureen Dowd leaked where he was staying. Thanks a lot. *

*From the editor: Maureen Dowd denies this, and The Atlantic erred in not seeking her response before posting this interview... Click here for more

You mentioned that religion should be a private affair. Where do you stand on the headscarf debate in France?

From the archives:

"The Crescent and the Tricolor" (November 2000)
France today has more Muslims than practicing Catholics, and couscous has arguably become the country's national food. By Christopher Caldwell

There is in fact no mandate in the Koran for covering the head or the face. In many countries that have a Muslim majority, there’s no question of girls wearing veils in school. Turkey wouldn’t have it, Tunisia wouldn’t have it, I don’t think Morocco would have it. We’re applying a Saudi standard to children in Western Europe because we think we must respect their religion.

And it’s a Jewish heresy, covering the hair, which you’d think would put them off. But no, they always borrow the worst stuff. They borrow the dumbest stuff in Judaism: the terrible Abraham story and the pork phobia and the head covering. They also borrow the stupidest stuff from Christianity, like the virgin birth and all that nonsense. It’s awful, witless plagiarism. Why we should respect it, I don’t know.

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.

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.