Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Christopher Hitchens on the Essential Stupidity of Religion

reposted from LA Weekly

Christopher Hitchens on the Essential Stupidity of Religion

"Many people have been motivated to do grand, good things by faith, but why is that necessary?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 6:00 pm
(Illustration by Mr. Fish)
He appears equally capable of pissing into your grandmother’s fish tank and beating you at chess: the quasi-omniscient Johnny Rotten of political journo-intellectualism, looking as if he were assembled hastily by sausage makers hoping to fill a suit with all the succulent impropriety of vitriolic yet delectable meats. A man well aware that the shortest distance (and least interesting path) between birth and death is a very straight line, he has the reputation of someone prone to the rich experiences offered by staggering. But contrary to the corroborating promises all but guaranteed by the YouTube versions of himself, Christopher Hitchens was not an as-advertised fucking dickhead asshole bully, much to my dismay.

It was like meeting a clown without his makeup, away from the hysteria of his profession, who appears lovely and handsome and noble, if only because he isn’t trapped in a spotlight at the center of a ludicrous pie fight.

In fact, having recently won the National Magazine Award for his Vanity Fair work, and with the surprising popularity of his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, at No. 4 on Amazon even before its official release date, Hitchens was cheerful and elegant and, dare I say, sober when I met him at his Beverly Hills hotel.

In his rumpled trademark suit the color of Caucasian neutrality, a camouflage for anything but, he had just arrived in town to do the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Much to the shock of everybody in attendance and in sharp contradiction to the premise of his book — that there is no deistic magic in the universe — he performed the jaw-dropping miracle of receiving more applause than anybody else included on his panel, the equivalent of walking on whiskey at a venue that might typically boo him.

One felt, quite palpably, that the air he drew through his ever-present Rothmans Blue cigarette while he walked from the crowded ballroom was the lightest it had been in quite some time. It was as if the braying liberal Democrats, a half decade following 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the Freedom-Fry-loving golf buddies of the Bush administration, had pardoned him for the buffoonery of his neocon cheerleading, deeming his one-man rah-rah squad too puny and pitiable to revile. Christopher Hitchens, crucified more times by old friends and new enemies than all the velvetized Jesusi in Tijuana combined, had been born again.

What follows are some of the more cogent, or at least more cohesive, excerpts culled from a three-hour discussion made musically uneven by a great deal of Coppola Merlot that was enjoyed by both the interviewer and interviewee, despite a personal promise made by the interviewer that he would never again ingest any more celebrity-named foodstuff following the summer of ’75, when, under questionable adult supervision, he ate enough Bobby Clarke Peanut Butter to caulk a chimney.

L.A. WEEKLY: There’s nothing obtuse about the title of your new book, is there? I can’t imagine anybody buying it and then being offended because they didn’t know what they were getting.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No, which is the point. A lot of people have been waiting for something like this for a long time, this push back to religious bullying and stupidity. The title came to me in the shower, which is where most of my ideas come to me. That’s why I’m so clean.

Do you care that such a blatant title might limit its readership to mostly those who need no convincing of your argument? Is it really going to change anybody’s mind?

I do think it will change minds, precisely that, because I think there are a lot of minds that are not so much in a solid form of dogma. The book isn’t just about saying to hell with you and your foolish faith. I think it’s probably useful to have at least some knowledge of the other side, empathy even.

Can a person be spiritual without being religious?

I suppose so. Everybody, whether they’re laying a brick wall with a trowel or shearing a sheep, has experienced the transcendent, that’s one thing. It’s quite another to believe that the universe is directed toward you. The holy texts do actually say what they say and they do mandate a lot of incredible stupidity. I’m rather proud of the chapter [I wrote] about Dr. King. Many people, at least ostensibly, have been motivated to do grand, good things by faith, but why is that necessary? You don’t need the supernatural to be in favor of abolishing the condition of slavery, for instance, whereas you do need the Bible to keep slavery going so long.

It could be argued that the threat to humanity posed by religion pales in comparison to the threat posed by science and technology — napalm didn’t come out of the Vatican, it came out of the chemistry department at Harvard. At least God doesn’t require 30 billion barrels of oil a year to keep his halo glowing.

No, but then if you look at what could be very frightening, you would have scientific knowledge plagiarized by unscientific people who have contempt for both science and reason — apocalyptic technique in the hands of messianic forces. Let’s be honest about it, there is an advantage to the rational mind as opposed to the fanatical one. The fanatical one is not very good at science, and so far, this advantage has played out in our favor.

Still, does science bear no responsibility when it creates, essentially, a doomsday machine and then says it should only be used for peaceful purposes?

I would think it was a bad thing if the species was destroyed by an apocalyptic weapon, but I can’t see how any religious believer would think it was such a bad thing. To them it’s not a tragedy — it can’t be. They’ve repeatedly said so. And, sure, a secular power with a nuclear weapon could make the mistake [of ending the world] and several times nearly has. Nothing stops that. The idea that we could die as a species is obviously very high. And the fact that we’ve survived this very brief time is rather surprising. It would be ironic if it were something that arose from our intelligence that got rid of us.

Maybe intelligence is the wrong word.

Collage by Mr. Fish
Well, our tenure on this planet is very fragile — we’ve [known] that ever since nuclear physics was discovered. In my view, in case I didn’t make this clear enough in the book — which, actually, I think I didn’t — outgrowing the supernatural and the superstitious is not sufficient for emancipating the human race. It’s only the beginning. All our big discoveries and big arguments are ahead of us, but the one that has to be subtracted is the fanatical one that prays for the end of time.

Most of the religious people I know don’t adhere to some ancient, antiquated text, nor are they afraid of spending eternity burning in hell if they misbehave. Don’t you think that religion, for some people, simply fulfills the same purpose that literature might for others, as a way to quantify ideas of right and wrong?

That’s why I say, in many ways, that [religious inquiry] is a literary question; it’s about ethics and the origin of ethics, and the best way in which they’re expressed is a dilemma — ethical dilemmas are in literature and myth.

There’s a basic question that I seldom see included in this discussion, and that is the question of the viability of human consciousness itself, and whether or not it perceives reality or just perceives itself perceiving reality. In other words, can consciousness even perceive the truth or does it only interpret a version of the truth relative to a person’s mood, opinion, ideology?

No school of philosophy has ever solved this question of whether being determines consciousness or the other way around. It may be a false antithesis. Here’s what I do know: Those who claim that they do know this are bound to be wrong. The argument is not equal between us and the supernaturalists. They don’t just claim to know there is a supernatural that can be miraculous as a designer; they don’t just claim to know that, which is more than they can know. They say, “No, no, you can! Not only that, you can know God’s mind. Not only that, you can know what he wants you to do about food and sex.” If we start by excluding those who say there’s no point in the argument, who say they already know the truth, if we drop them, then we may get some progress. Then we’re left with an argument among grown-ups.

Do you find that an argument against the existence of God is not unlike an argument against the existence of obscenity? We’ve developed this habit of using the incontrovertibility of physical reality to give incontrovertibility to our imaginations, therefore we’re capable of making our imaginations seem real, so God can seem real. You can see it when you look at the words cuntand vagina. Both words refer to the same exact thing, yet one is considered obscene. The difference between the wordscuntandvagina is imaginary.

I know what you mean. However, cunt is a hate word —

But it was invented to be such.

It’s true that obscenity is a matter of taste and in the eye of the beholder. The real objection to obscenity, in my opinion, is the result of our makeup, specifically that the urinary/genitary/excretory is mixed up. That’s what makes children laugh and whistle and grin. If that were not the case, we’d be a lot better off, perhaps. Obscenity comes from grime. “Free education is a gift to the poor, it raises them out of the gutter. It teaches the girls to write cock on the door and the boys to write cunt on the shutter.” It’s the relationship between the spiritual and urinary, that’s where obscenity comes from.

That’s my point: Is obscenity — or God — something we can even have a rational conversation about if we’ve only been conditioned to react to it? Is consciousness an evolutionary flaw?

The situation is, we’re mammals, we leak and we excrete and then we’re told to forget about that or to deny it. Religion is totalitarian because it demands the impossible. [Like religion], obscenity shuts you down. The secular argument, or the liberal argument, is to as much as possible remove taboos so things do not become unmentionable; to let some air into the discussion.

That reminds me of my favorite Lenny Bruce quote: Knowledge of syphilis is not instruction to get it.

[Chuckles.] It was easy to argue this kind of thing in the ’60s, against censorship, against bans on homosexuality, et cetera. Now you do run into people who say, “Then why would you forbid pedophilia? Would the same standards hold for this? Or snuff movies? Or third-trimester abortions?” This argument takes place among rationalists and humanists and sociologists. We don’t say that if you allow [these things] we would be comfortable with obscenity. I do think there are lots of things you don’t have to be taught. Most people don’t have to be taught not to eat dead human beings, let alone to kill them in order to eat them. You don’t have to drill this into children. You don’t have to drill it into children that if one of their parents wants to go to bed with them that they should go and stay at the neighbor’s for the night. You could say that that’s an argument for a Creator with a benevolent view, but then you’d have a huge rational argument about why we are programmed to kill and torture and so on. It does show that morality precedes religion, that ethics precedes religion, not the other way around.

Still, I wonder if our survival as a species is something we can will, given a consciousness that is able to make its imagination seem real?

We can’t stand far enough outside of our dilemma to think it completely through. It’s like the mind/body distinction. There may not be a distinction. The mind is clever enough to consider the distinction, but it’s not clever enough to get far enough outside the body to arbitrate it.

And that’s the rub.

We don’t know that we’re not dreaming. Look, we can’t resolve these things today. We are having quite a high-level discussion, about things that are fairly imponderable to combat, ??>?up against a phalanx of people who say, “What’s the point in having this discussion? We already know the answer. What’s the point of struggling and arguing and researching?” This is what I find hateful.

Some people might accuse you of asking everybody to be comfortable living in a Godless universe that is completely indifferent to them. How do you imagine people will go about satisfying their own sense of purpose?

Obviously, it’s not possible for people to do that all of the time, but it is possible for them not to draw any conclusions from their belief that the universe is all about them. If a huge rusted fridge fell through the ceiling and obliterated you without warning, I would think, well, that was lucky. Presuming that the fridge was directed at neither of us, it’s not lucky at all. But I would not be human if I didn’t think it was a bit of luck. This is why religion can’t be beaten, because it does derive from all these forms of selfishness, self-centeredness, fantasy and so on. Fine, I concede to that, but then why do people keep saying that I have to respect it? I don’t have to respect any belief, nor do you, that a rusted fridge that killed you and didn’t kill me was a piece of luck. You do not have to respect that. You can recognize it and see where it comes from. You can analyze it, you can even sympathize with it. You can’t really say that I insist also that you respect it.

There is in religion, however, some practical application. Take, for instance, the very radical notion that the meek have some intrinsic value. African-Americans, just to take an obvious example, were told for centuries that they were something much less than human, so for them to have access to a Bible that tells them that they are significant, that white society doesn’t determine their worth is, well, significant. For them it was a belief system that acknowledged, and still does in large part, that they were mistreated human beings. Respecting that aspect of religion doesn’t demand that you also kowtow to superstition.

Of course, of course; since there’s no justice in this world there better be some justice on offer in the next. Again, you can see where it comes from, fine. It’s the same when Karen Armstrong [author of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions] writes about Islam. Arabs were being teased by Jews and Christians, “You haven’t had a prophet yet.” Well, they were going to get one, weren’t they? Then you have the Archangel Gabriel appear to some fucking peasant merchant who can’t read, exactly borrowed from the [Judeo-Christian] faith. Yes, of course I understand that, but it’s too much to ask me to believe it. It’s too much to ask me to respect it. It’s too much like I would be, too much like myself. I can’t respect something that follows my own wish fulfillment. I don’t. The last time I prayed was for an erection. Don’t ask me if I got it or not.

Having had just enough Sunday school to know the story of Lot’s wife and how to recognize an unhealthy temptation when I heard one, I struggled hard to keep my eyes above c-level and asked Hitchens a final question about whose existence was easier to disprove, Henry Kissinger’s or God’s. He laughed and said that it was the same process for eviscerating each high-profile Jew in print and that, essentially, the quantitative differences between nonexistent entities was not measurable, the difference between the hole in a very old bagel and the hole in a relatively recent one.

When he stood to say goodbye, I did not stand to shake his hand, not because I was trying to be disrespectful, but rather because I figured a greater disrespect might’ve been expressed had I fallen down on him clumsily while vomiting out my eye sockets. (Remember the Merlot.) Waiting until I was sure he was a safe distance away, I stood slowly, stacking my vertebrae like hermit crabs beneath a bowling ball, and zigzagged to the men’s room, the whole way thinking how much shorter Hitchens’ book could’ve been given its basic premise that stupid people — whose stupidity manifested itself in theism — had no right to implicate other people in their stupidity. With the right editor, I told myself, the new version of the book would be small enough to fit comfortably into the palm of one’s hand, specifically as a coiled middle finger ready to spring upward in an instant at the first sign of an approaching beatific expression, circumcised penis or Osmond.

In fact, his refusal to expand his hatred of stupidity to include even the most glaring and uncontroversial secular examples made his middle-finger assault on religious idiocy seem at times as pandering as the worst sort of prejudice; you either assume that everybody has a right to a different opinion, just as everybody has a right to a different favorite color, or you recognize the ludicrousness of such a charitable notion and you say that nobody’s opinion is any more or less useful to the comprehension of life than anybody else’s and, therefore, everybody is supremely fucked.

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