Macleans Interview with Hitchens

December 15, 2010

Hitchens concisely makes a number of very important points.

Q: It seems to me there’s an essential distinction to be made between faith and religion that I don’t think Tony Blair was ever making.

A: I think there is. I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen—in other words, the supernatural or supervising deity, presence, force who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation. If that’s not in your mind, then I don’t think you’re really a religious person at all. I mean, you couldn’t have told from anything Blair said that he was a Catholic. He didn’t rise to any of my baits about the Vicar of Christ, none of that, and none of his liberation charity theology type of mush actually requires transubstantiation—the real presence of Christ in the mass—or all of the things you have to believe if you are a Catholic.

Q: Did you expect, when you published God is Not Great, that defending it would become such a job? I’ve heard you referred to as the poster boy of atheism.

A: I hate that! But I don’t ever get tired of it because it’s the most interesting subject. It’s the original subject, including the first written texts, really. Religion is what we had before we had philosophy and before we had cosmology and medical care and all kinds of things. You can’t get tired of an argument that’s that extensive.

Q: I wonder if you become impatient with having to argue such abstracted ideas of faith—for instance, as happened during the debate, about the impulse to be good as if it was solely a religious quality—when, as you pointed out, so much that is inimical about religions lies in their differences.

A: Well, it can be a bit like punching air, as can dealing with the argument from charity. If in a seminar you were to argue that I’ve committed a well-known fallacy by not deriving my conclusions from my premises and I reply, “You don’t know what you’re on about, I’ve just given 10 bucks to a homeless person,” my answer wouldn’t be accepted. But if you’re a religious person, it’s a fantastic counter-argument. It’s the special permission they expect to be granted to talk nonsense.

Q: It was good to hear you make the feminist point that the short cut to alleviating poverty is through elevating the status of women. Is that something you insist on?

A: Well, I do because it doesn’t take very long for a new Catholic, the fresh Catholic convert, to bring up either charity or the example of Mother Teresa, which is usually thought of as an automatic winning point. And this was odd, because I thought possibly Blair had read my little book on Mother Teresa and it’s in the argument over her that I’ve made the point most often, because her teachings and entire lifetime of work was exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d ever spent the money she raised on charity—which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway. So I’m quite used to the Mother Teresa argument. And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion—and not just a monotheistic one—that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

Q: Is what you describe as the “numinous,” the “transcendent” or, in extreme cases, the “ecstatic” a necessary position you had to work out to find some way of accounting for the mysterious?

A: Yes, because what one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know. Ever since one first started discussing the existence of God in the dormitory at school, you would hear people saying sincerely, “Well, you know, there’s got to be something more than just all this.” Clearly such thinking does not come from nowhere, it comes from people lying awake and having perhaps strange thoughts they cannot deal with, or emotional experiences they hadn’t been able to predict, or moments where you feel that there’s something larger than yourself—of which love is a pretty good test. We aren’t a particularly rational species, we look for patterns and we find them much too easily. It’s good that we look, but we’re very afraid, easily scared, terrified of death, and often we are very stirred without quite knowing why. Some fairly banal examples, I suppose, are landscape and music in combination, or alone; love in combination with either of these; or perhaps looking at the vault of heaven, as Hamlet would have put it—at the “fretted gold” of the sky at night. Cataclysmic events, great impressive storms, earthquakes, all of this makes one feel that actually we’re not just primates on a rock, though in fact such phenomena are completely compatible with the view that we’re primates on a rock. What I think would be nice is if people realized, for example, that a lot of devotional music is actually written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example. The effect that the Parthenon has on me is of the numinous and the transcendent, but it’s not religion.

Q: You must have taken part in a Passover Seder sometime.

A: Indeed.

Q: I’m glad. I believe that everything in Jewish culture from humour to scepticism can be explained especially by the moment in this meal in which the rabbi or the person at the head of the table is obliged to answer the question, “Why is this night different from any other night?” and that he must do so until each of the four sons is convinced or their eyes are heavy with sleep. I’ve always been affected by this idea that an answer can be different according to needs. Is it a contradiction for me to be an atheist but also to feel that this is at least a good moment for understanding a culture?

A: Not at all, because I think the Jewish Seder is one of the most interesting survivals of the Hellenistic period in Jerusalem when Jews, before the big restoration of orthodoxy by the Maccabees, were calling their sons Alexander, as a lot of them still do, and had adopted the Platonic symposium and would lie on couches. One of the questions of the night is, “Why do we recline?” They drink alcohol, they ask questions, and the young ones are supposed to take that leading role. It’s all taken from the Greek—and it was bound to lead to dissent. There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason. Leo Strauss thought that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wasn’t a believer but that he just dressed himself up in that way. So the great tragedy for me is the fact that Hellenistic Jewry was defeated. That’s what’s celebrated at Hanukkah and that’s why I hate Hanukkah. The Hellenistic influence was defeated and the old sacrifices and circumcisions were brought back.


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