Atheists with Attitude

By Anthony Gottlieb
New Yorker, May 21, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens recounts how, a week before 9/11, a hypothetical question was put to him by Dennis Prager, an American talk-show host. Hitchens was asked to imagine himself in a foreign city at dusk, with a large group of men coming toward him. Would he feel safer, or less safe, if he were to learn that they were coming from a prayer meeting? With justified relish, the widely travelled Hitchens responds that he has had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad, and that, in each case, the answer would be a resounding "less safe." He relates what he has seen or knows of warring factions of Protestants and Catholics in Ulster; Christians and Muslims in Beirut and in Bethlehem; Hindus and Muslims in Bombay; Roman Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbians, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians in Baghdad. In these cases and others, he argues, religion has exacerbated ethnic conflicts. As he puts it, "religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred."

When Hitchens weighs the pros and cons of religion in the recent past, the evidence he provides is sometimes lopsided. He discusses the role of the Dutch Reformed Church in maintaining apartheid in South Africa, but does not mention the role of the Anglican Church in ending it. He attacks some in the Catholic Church, especially Pope Pius XII, for their appeasement of Nazism, but says little about the opposition to Nazism that came from religious communities and institutions.

In the early days of the Christian era, nobody was fantasizing about a world with no religion, but there were certainly those who liked to imagine a world with no Christians. The first surviving example of anti-Christian polemic is strikingly similar in tone to that of some of today's militant atheists. In the second century, it was Christians who were called "atheists," because they failed to worship the accepted gods.

David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, couldn't have been more different from today's militant atheists. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the Dialogues and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.

AR  The arc of this assault on religion is sobering. First came the clear clarion call from Sam Harris, then came a magisterial and finely crafted classic from Dan Dennett, then a rather strident polemic from Richard Dawkins, and now a bombastic raspberry from Chris Hitchens. One would have hoped that critics of religion could at least have maintained the balanced tone of David Hume. Clearly that is too much to hope. Yet the religious apologists have even less in the way of recent writings to celebrate. Or have I just read too little?


By Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair, June 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The London neighborhood of the author's youth, Finsbury Park, is now one of the breeding grounds for a new phenomenon: the British jihadist. How did a nation move from cricket and fish-and-chips to burkas and shoe-bombers in a single generation?
Returning to the old place after a long absence, I found it odd to see women wearing the veil or the burka. Until he was jailed last year on charges of soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred, a man known to the police of several countries as Abu Hamza al-Masri was the imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque. The British have always been proud of their tradition of hospitality and asylum, but the appellation "Londonistan" has come to describe a city which became home to people wanted for terrorist crimes as far afield as Cairo and Karachi.

In the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, American television interviewers were all asking me the same question: How can this be? I told them to go back and review the 1997 film of Hanif Kureishi's brilliant short story "My Son the Fanatic," and then to reread Monica Ali's 2003 novel, Brick Lane.

It's interesting that it should be authors from Muslim backgrounds — Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, the broadcaster and co-author of the Policy Exchange report Munira Mirza — who are issuing the warnings. For the British mainstream, multiculturalism has been the official civic religion for so long that any criticism of any minority group has become the equivalent of profanity.

Anyway, you can't be multicultural and preach murderous loathing of Jews. And you can't be multicultural and preach equally homicidal hatred of India. My colleague Henry Porter sat me down in his West London home and made me watch a documentary that shows film shot in quite mainstream Islamic centers in Birmingham and London: foaming, bearded preachers calling for crucifixion of unbelievers, for homosexuals to be thrown off mountaintops, for disobedient and "deficient" women to be beaten into submission, and for Jewish and Indian property and life to be destroyed.

What this shows is the utter futility of the soft-centered explanations of the 7/7 bombings and other outrages. Tony Blair's policy of encouraging "faith schools" has written sectarianism into the very fabric of British life. A non-Muslim child who lives in a Muslim-majority area may now find herself attending a school that requires headscarves.

It's impossible to exaggerate how far and how fast this situation has deteriorated.

AR  Hitch, your journalism is great. This is tough stuff. Keep at it.

God Bless Me!

By Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair, September 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

In the last two years there have been five atheist best-sellers, one each from Professors Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and two from the neuroscientist Sam Harris. As the author of the fifth of these books, I asked my publishers to arrange my book tour as a series of challenges to the spokesmen of the faithful.

April 22, Little Rock, Arkansas: On the road from the Little Rock airport is an enormous billboard bearing the word JESUS: this is just how people like to imagine Dixie. My book isn't even published, yet there's an overflow Sunday crowd. I start by mentioning the sign. I know the name, I say, and I have used the expression. But on its own the word "Jesus" seems to say both too much and (somehow) too little. This gets a laugh.

May 1, New York City: An evening at the Union League Club. A full house of right-wingers who at least agree with me on the single issue of fighting Islamic jihadism. A generally receptive and friendly audience as I am interviewed by Peter Collier. He's just closed the meeting when a man puts up his hand. This turns out to be Father George Rutler, who announces that he's on the committee of the club and will make sure that I am never invited there again.

May 3, New York City: To the Lou Dobbs show, on CNN. Mr. Dobbs displays a satirical paragraph from my book, about the number of virgin births that all religions have always claimed. He lets me bang on a lot. At the end, he refers to my new American citizenship, the oath of which I swore at the Jefferson Memorial on April 13.

May 7, New York City: To the New York Public Library to debate Al Sharpton. To a question about Mormonism and Mitt Romney, I reply that it's high time the governor was asked about the official racism of his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

May 11, Washington, D.C.: In the studio of The Christian Science Monitor to debate with Pastor Stephan Munsey, leader of a mega-church in Indiana, plus a Baptist theologian from Wake Forest University. The Baptist theologian says that he basically agrees with me.

May 14, Austin, Texas: In the evening to debate with Marvin Olasky at the L.B.J. Library. Olasky is the man who coined the term "compassionate conservatism" and helped evolve Bush's "faith-based initiative." He's a convert from both Judaism and Communism. He tells the audience that his record as a married man improved after he became a Christian.

May 15, Raleigh, North Carolina: Quail Ridge Books has to move the event into a neighboring Unitarian church. My opponent tonight is Dr. Adam English. He's a Baptist, but when I ask if he believes Calvin's teaching about hell and predestination, he doesn't love the question.

May 16, Atlanta: My publishers had at first told me that I couldn't find a debater in this great city, but the Margaret Mitchell House now asks if I can do not one session but two, to accommodate excess demand. The defender of the faith on this occasion is Timothy Jackson, a professor of Christian ethics at Emory University. He's by far the best yet.

May 17, Coral Gables, Florida: I owe an apology. It is not true that Orthodox Jews conduct sexual congress through a hole in the sheet. I should never have mentioned this slander in my book. At the Temple Judea, I make this concession in an exchange with Nathan Katz.

June 5, Los Angeles: A three-hour debate with the Reverend Mark Roberts, senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, in Orange County, on Hugh Hewitt's conservative Christian chat show. Very nice of Mr. Hewitt. The Rev doesn't accuse me of not knowing what I'm talking about.

June 7, Seattle: A host on the local Fox radio station says he's appalled that I can't find a debate partner for this evening's event at Town Hall. After all, Seattle is the home of the Discovery Institute: powerhouse of the "intelligent design" movement.

June 10, Washington, D.C.: It's been weeks on the road, and I am finally home. I tell the wife and daughter that's it: no more god talk for a bit — let's get lunch at the Café Milano. I sit down, right next to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Okay, this must have been meant to happen. I lean over. "My Lord Archbishop? It's Christopher Hitchens." "Good gracious," he responds, gesturing at his guest, "we were just discussing your book."

AR  Good writer on a hot theme, no surprise. But all this misses the deeper issues. Why did religion happen? Why does it work for so many people, psychologically? There is a huge amount of good science to be done in this field, once the passions have cooled down. Yet I suspect we may be in for a century of strife before that cooling.

Bible Belter

By Richard Dawkins
The Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline. His witty repartee, his ready-access store of historical quotations, his bookish eloquence, his effortless flow of well-formed words, beautifully spoken in that formidable Richard Burton voice, would threaten your arguments even if you had good ones to deploy.

Christopher Hitchens was warned by the State Department "to change my address and my telephone number, which seemed an unlikely way of avoiding reprisal. However, it did put me on notice of what I already knew. It is not possible for me to say, Well, you pursue your Shiite dream of a hidden imam and I pursue my study of Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and the world is big enough for both of us. The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee."

Hitchens invokes the Danish cartoons to discuss complicity and cowardice in the West: "Islamic mobs were violating diplomatic immunity and issuing death threats against civilians, yet the response from His Holiness the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was to condemn the cartoons! In my own profession, there was a rush to see who could capitulate the fastest, by reporting on the disputed images without actually showing them."

Hitchens on Rushdie and the fatwa: "The Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with the ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and other lesser religious figures. While they usually managed a few words in which to deplore the resort to violence, all these men stated that the main problem raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses was not murder by mercenaries but blasphemy."

Theocracy doesn't obviously nurture the sort of cultural and educational advancement that goes with modern scientific inventiveness. Hitchens develops his point with respect to 9/11: "Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft."

Hitchens is quick to note the similarity of Christianity to extinct cults. Jesus slots right into a cosmopolitan catalogue of virgin births. Jesus' case was abetted by a simple mistranslation from the Hebrew for "young woman" into the Greek for "virgin".

One of Hitchens' central themes is that gods are made by man, rather than the other way around. A related theme is the widespread fallacy that we derive our morals from religious rules such as the Ten Commandments. As Hitchens puts it, does anybody seriously think that, before Moses delivered the tablet inscription "Thou shalt not kill", his people had thought it a good idea to do so?

Hitchens comes into his own on the evils that are done in the name of religion. Adolf Hitler affirmed his Christianity throughout his life, but he did not do his horrible deeds in the name of Christianity. Joseph Stalin was probably an atheist but he didn't do evil because he was an atheist. Hitchens is especially good on the idiotic challenge "Stalin and Hitler were atheists, what d'you say to that?" Hitchens makes the point in the book: "If you're Stalin, you shouldn't be in the dictatorship business if you can't exploit the pool of servility and docility that's ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity."

I'm not reviewing his politics, I'm reviewing his book. And what a splendid, boisterously virile broadside of a book it is.

AR  My sentiments exactly.

A Death

By Christopher Hitchens
Vanity Fair, November 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

A few months ago, flicking through e-mail, I idly clicked on a message from a friend with a story by Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described the death, in Iraq, of a young soldier from California named Mark Jennings Daily. This handsome lad had been born on the Fourth of July, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a UCLA honors graduate, and during his college days had reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on:

"Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him ..."

I felt a deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war.

I clicked on all the links from the article and found myself on Lieutenant Daily's MySpace site, where his statement "Why I Joined" was posted. At the top of the page was a link to a passage from one of my articles, in which I poured scorn on those who were neutral about the battle for Iraq ... I don't remember ever feeling, in every allowable sense of the word, quite so hollow.

As I wrote to his parents, I was quite prepared for them to resent me. So let me introduce you to one of the most generous and decent families in the United States. In the midst of their own grief, they took the trouble to try to make me feel better. I wasn't to worry about any "guilt or responsibility": their son had signed up with his eyes wide open and had "assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this, he would still go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his country."

Lieutenant Daily crossed from Kuwait to Iraq in November 2006, where he would be deployed with the C Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment in Mosul. On the 15th of January last, he was on patrol in his Humvee, and was hit by an enormous buried mine that packed a charge of some 1,500 pounds of high explosive.

I have now talked to a good number of those who knew Mark Daily or were related to him, and it's clear that the country lost an exceptional young citizen. I discovered this in his life story and in his surviving writings. Here's an excerpt from his "Why I Joined" statement:

"Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception ... Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics."

Mark had told his father that he wanted to be cremated, with the ashes strewn on the beach at Neskowin, Oregon. The Dailys asked if I would join them. So it was that in August I found myself on the dunes by an especially lovely and remote stretch of the Oregon coastline. As the sun began to sink, we took up the tattered Stars and Stripes that had flown outside the family home since Mark's deployment and walked to his favorite spot to plant it. Everyone was supposed to say something, but when John Daily took the first scoop from the urn and spread the ashes on the breeze, there was something so unutterably final in the gesture that tears seemed as natural as breathing.

As the day ebbed in a blaze of glory over the ocean, I thought, Well, here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best. I hope no fanatical fool could ever mistake this for weakness. It is, instead, a very particular kind of strength.


By Edward Luce
Financial Times, January 11, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Hitchens announces that he has given up smoking. He lets drop that he is nearing 60 years old. Hillary Clinton just turned 60. Bill turned 60 last year. Al Gore is 59. George W. Bush is 61. "I'm the crest and cusp of the baby boomer generation," says Hitchens. "And unfortunately for me this crest and cusp has already occurred, in that someone who was at Oxford with me has already been the president of the United States and he turned out to be a real scumbag."

I am aware Hitchens has a low opinion of Clinton. Then Hitchens says that he and Clinton had shared a girlfriend at Oxford. I was startled. Was this sequential or simultaneous, I ask? "No, no, no, not at the same time or in the same room," says Hitchens, laughing. He remembers the date and venue when Clinton was famously supposed to have partaken of marijuana but not inhaled. Weren't you eating hash cookies? I ask. "No, brownies, not cookies."

I am curious to hear his take on Hillary Clinton. Does he feel that she also embodied the vices of the 1960s? "Not at all," he replies enthusiastically. "With her it's too many of the virtues. She's a perfect example of how the 1960s have mutated into political correctness. She represents that mutation to mere perfection."

What turned an expatriate British left-winger into an American neo-conservative? "It was St. Valentine's Day 1989," he says. "That was the day Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie." He explains that the message sent that day by Tehran, and the European left's tepid reaction to the fatwa, had caused him to begin reappraising his view of the world. Hitchens reserves a special hostility for Islam.

He mentions how he misses London but feels that its great tradition of tolerance is under threat. "The Islamists will try to spoil everything for everyone," he says. Hitchens has recently taken up American citizenship.

The Bombay Club, Washington DC
1 x chicken tikka
1 x vegetarian thali
I x non-vegetarian thali
3 x Johnnie Walker
1 x Kingfisher beer
2 x coffee
Total: $112