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January 18, 2012

To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 1

By Ian Hansen

Part 1 of a three part piece on Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheism, originally written in 2007 for a class on cultural criticism that Hitchens co-taught.


News of Christopher Hitchens' death at the end of last year sent me back to a piece of writing (with the title above) that I had given to him in 2007. Together with Melissa Monroe, Hitchens co-taught a class on cultural criticism that I had audited at New School University (formerly the New School for Social Research).  The piece captured a thought process that the course, and his then recent book God is Not Great, had inspired.  Since he had never responded to my emails, I handed the printed pages to him after the last class of the semester as he got into his cab.  I saw him take in the first few paragraphs with a quick hyper-literate glance, and then he looked up and wished me a very dry "Merry Christmas" before closing the cab door and escaping to better company.  I do not know if he read the rest of it, because I never heard from him again.

I have decided to take his non-response as critical feedback, and have revised what was a very raw piece at the time.  I hope it no longer embodies The Onion's December 16 parody headline, " Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate To Christopher Hitchens," but if it does, it at least puts forward a novel fumbling inarticulate approach to Hitchens, and to the so-called "New Atheism".

The revision now comes too late for Hitchens' obituary moment (more epic figures like Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il have passed since then), and Christmas has passed too, so it cannot be a posthumous "Merry Christmas" reply.  2011 has been a year of revolutionary upheavals and brutal backlashes, though, so if the piece offers any insight into what religion and its rejection can contribute to peace and justice, then it can at least function as a wish (in Hitchens' name) for a happier new year.

As the piece is long, it will be posted in three parts.  Part 1 is below.


I read Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything looking for bad arguments to expose and jingoist warmongering to condemn. I borrowed the book from the library to avoid further enriching him and then kept a collection of mini post-its in my pocket to wallpaper the pages with. I have gone through the entire book looking for factual, logical and moral errors to correct, and though I found plenty, I also found a kind of lingering humanity that I would prefer to see nourished rather than driven away in the clash of ideology.

My undergraduate degree was in philosophy and there is nothing more satisfying to a philosopher than destroying a bad argument so mercilessly that if it returns to life at all, it returns as a humiliated shell of itself. Few philosophers dream these days of building up a worldview worth living by (such utopianism has long been out of fashion), but almost all dream of shattering a worldview that people who should know better have vastly overestimated.

In recent years, though, I have become more conscious of the vulnerable ecology of human cultural life, and I have seen how the impulse to destroy erroneous cultures, religions, ideologies, etc. has frequently been a tool of war and oppression. The spirit of error-destruction, while aimed at the worst that human variation has to offer, often ends up benefiting cancerous and weed-like ideologies and laying waste to the more fragile and beautiful creations of human cultural and religious imagination. When conscious, then, I try to resist the impulse to focus the entirety of my being on smashing to dust other people's errors.

Giving up error-destruction is not easy, however, because certain errors--whether errors of incompetence or grave moral errors--understandably inspire outrage, especially when committed by those we consider "our own" (who ought, we ethnocentrically think, to know better). For instance, it is an outrageous error to occupy another country against the passionately expressed popular opposition of the entire world and against the non-cooked intelligence of one's own spies. It is an ignoble error to order one's occupying soldiers to search for non-existent nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as looters ransack the memory of one of humanity's oldest civilizations. It is a catastrophic error to disband the conquered army and civil service so that an insurgency might be sparked and war with all its glory and spoils may go on long after victory has been declared.  And when that war racks up 600,000 deaths in three years, it can justifiably be called a fatal error.

It is difficult not to adopt the spirit of error-destruction in the face of such errors. However, when outrages like this are carefully examined, the spirit of error destruction itself can be found as an active accomplice to the nihilistic greed that is the primary culprit.  Adopting a spirit of error destruction as a corrective to the wreckage wrought by precisely that spirit seems insensitive to the hard lessons of reality.  The United States and its allies destroyed the memory of Iraqi civilization and several hundred thousand lives at least in part because Iraq had made the error of allowing itself to be ruled by a brutal dictator.  That dictator may have been a faithful accomplice of U.S. foreign policy for a time, but in recent years he had grown less compliant, and so his atrocities could no longer be given a pass.  U.S. masters of war, while not inattentive to the revenue that could accrue to Halliburton and other companies that stood to make short term profits from military action, presumably also felt then that a muscular correction of this Iraqi error could only be of benefit to the Iraqi people (and even a way to atone for America's long support of Iraq's dictator in the first place).

Indeed, Christopher Hitchens has been making [1] an argument more or less like this on a regular basis since before the Iraq war began, along with the argument that somehow this intervention has strengthened the hand of secular reason and humanity against religious fanaticism and brutality.  Hitchens has also maintained for longer than most well-informed people that there was some significant connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda prior to the U.S. invasion.  No matter how unreasonable or empirically ungrounded his arguments have grown, though, Hitchens' tone has always been innovative, erudite, literate, and seemingly wedded to a spirit of compelling moral outrage.

Since writing God is Not Great, Hitchens has recast himself as one of the so-called "New Atheists," and though he will still defend the Iraq War, he appears to get more joy these days out of attacking religion than crafting rearguard apologetics for the atrocities of the Bush Administration.  The term "the New Atheists" refers to a particular subset of atheist public intellectuals with relatively distinctive views on matters of culture and religion.  All atheists consider God to be an unnecessary hypothesis but the New Atheists make the additional claim that God is a demonstrably dangerous idea that should be gradually or rapidly weeded out of the public imagination.  Along with Hitchens, the most famous New Atheists are bestselling author and neuroscience student Sam Harris and celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins [2] .

The New Atheists, like Hitchens, are not at all shy about adopting the idiom of error-destruction in their polemic.  One aspect of New Atheist novelty, in fact, is how hawkish and doctrinaire they are compared to the genteel atheists of yesteryear like Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Einstein (both pacifists who were generally disinclined to ethnocentric hatreds, did not worship The West as the unrivalled pinnacle of human civilization, and asked only that religion live up to its own creeds, rather than asking that it die a violent and horrible death).  Prior to Hitchens' entree, Richard Dawkins was the "left" side of the New Atheism (opposed to the Iraq War, contemptuous of the Bush Administration, against both the Judeo-Christian and Muslim sides of the "Clash of Civilizations"), while Sam Harris was the "right" side (siding enthusiastically with most aspects of Bush's War on Terror but asking that partisans of that war call it what it is--a War on Islam, and that they fight it to the glory of the Secular Scientific West, taking down Islam first and then moving on to Christianity, Judaism, etc.).  Hitchens' more muscular West-o-philic warrior atheism tips the balance significantly.  The New Atheism is now a Harris-Hitchens atheism, and Dawkins will have to adopt their idiom if he is to remain relevant [3] .

Perhaps the promise of bringing literate and intelligent atheists into the never-ending War on Terror was part of what originally endeared Hitchens to the neoconservatives he has befriended since supporting the Iraq War.  In earlier incarnations, neoconservatives were unlikely to befriend an out-of-the-closet atheist, as many of them agreed with the Straussian dogma that religion is a manhood-engorging "noble myth" and that declared atheism is too likely to encourage the effeminate moral midgetry of liberal cultural relativism to be of any use.  Hitchens, however, would argue that it is religion, in all of its preposterous variations, that ultimately encourages flaccid cultural relativism, and that reality-rooted atheism is the only sustainable antidote.  Hitchens, it appears, has been as effective at persuading neoconservatives to see some value in atheism as he once was at persuading liberals to see value in the Iraq War [4] .

Of course, what neoconservatives would call effeminate moral midgetry and flaccid cultural relativism many others would call an open-minded lack of dogmatic rigidity.  Hitchens, like many New Atheists, wants to have his cake and eat it too on the question of dogmatic rigidity, obviously manifesting such rigidity in his arguments and general post 9/11 demeanor, but at the same time arguing that what makes religion depraved and dangerous is precisely its absolute identity with dogmatic rigidity.

Nevertheless, the New Atheists, Hitchens included, speak with some amount of accuracy when they associate religion with dogmatism.  I have read a fair amount of empirically-grounded social science on the question of religion, authoritarianism, dogmatism and intolerance (and conducted some of it myself), so I can say with confidence that, for the most part, the religious really are more dogmatic and rigid than the irreligious.  The New Atheists may be a salient exception to this rule, but their claim that such a rule exists is backed up by relevant data.  Representative samples suggest that in general the religious are more interested than the irreligious are in convincing themselves or others of the eternal infallibility of their own worldviews.

Since atheists are also generally less authoritarian than the religious, they tend to be less credulous towards corporate media propaganda and towards the masters of war, who, as US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson noted in 1918, tend to make truth their first casualty. Atheists seem more likely to embark on adventures of information-gathering; asking heretical questions like, "does that really make sense?", "might our esteemed leaders be lying?" and "cui bono?"  Thus atheists presumably end up considerably better informed by their endeavors to gain knowledge than do professed God-lovers who watch Fox News slack-jawed and numb.

In addition, atheists appear less afraid to be called traitors, and are not particularly concerned about having their patriotism besmirched or their souls damned for disobedience to the supposedly God-appointed human authorities who break laws, bodies and dreams to increase their wealth and power. The many known historical acts of atheist-led (or foot-soldiered) resistance to unaccountable power are markers of this ideology's potential nobility.  Christopher Hitchens himself used to be among those footsoldiers, and in some ways he still is.

In the United States at least, the irreligious are generally more supportive of humane public policies than are the religious.  Most reputable U.S. polls find that salt-of-the-earth freethinkers are the vanguard of opposition to war, torture, occupations, and other atrocities committed by their own nations.  People cloaking themselves in a halo of religious intensity, on the other hand, are more likely (on average) to be sanguine about such horrors.  Indeed, the most vibrant and fastest-growing Christian churches are fundamentalist megachurches that embrace the fantastical and the medieval--contrast the rapidly emptying pews that compose "Mainline Protestantism" and other liberal churches and synagogues.  These thriving fundamentalist institutions generally support our nation's slaughter-happy inversions of patriotism and applaud our collective atrocities as cosmically necessary acts of error-destruction.

I should note, however, that the raw correlation between religious intensity and support for atrocity (a) is very inconsistent between studies, measures, and populations and (b) is misleading even when the relationship is positive.  Religiosity tends to be confounded with rigid conservatism (including dogmatism, authoritarianism, etc.)--i.e. those who are more religious also tend to be more dogmatic and authoritarian.  This means that when religiosity correlates with support for atrocity it is unclear whether religiosity (belief in a deity or deities, praying regularly, seeking to make one's life accord with religious teachings) is the active ingredient in motivating such support or whether it is rather the conservatism that tends to accompany religiosity that motivates this moral indifference to the suffering of others.

Studies bothering to statistically tease apart religiosity from conservative rigidity are very rare, however, in spite of the fact that ignoring this confound often results in misleading or contradictory data while relatively clean and consistent data emerges when the confound is eliminated with statistical controls.  In my own work I have found that rigid conservatism and religiosity make opposing predictions of support for group-based hatred and atrocity--with rigid conservatism positively predicting endorsement of these stances, and religiosity negatively predicting this endorsement or being unrelated.  I found this pattern across diverse religions, cultures and nations.  Recent work by social psychologists Ariel Malka and Christopher Soto shows that support for torture also follows this pattern--among those equally conservative, the more religious are more opposed to torture; among those equally religious, the more conservative are more supportive of torture [5] .  

Thus the greatest differences in self-reported support for tolerance and humane treatment of others tend to be between two oddball combinations of traits--those who manage to be both (psychologically) liberal and religious at the same time vs. those who manage to be both irreligious and conservative at the same time.  The religious conservatives and irreligious liberals with whom we are all more familiar tend to be more ordinary or "average" in their tolerance and humaneness, while religious liberals tend to be above average, and irreligious conservatives tend to be below average.  Think of religious liberal abolitionist William Wilberforce and irreligious conservative Iraq War hawk Karl Rove as the two extremes with regard to tolerant peace-loving concern for human dignity.  Between these two poles you will find irreligious liberal Thomas Friedman and religious conservative Mitt Romney, both more towards the middle of the distribution (and note that the middle can still be pretty brutal).

Religious liberals and irreligious conservatives are in relatively short supply, though, and so the better-known conflict between religious conservatives and irreligious liberals tends to dominate people's dualistic conceptions of the political universe.  In the U.S. context at least, irreligious liberals (as liberals) tend to be reliably more tolerant and humane than religious conservatives (as conservatives) on most affairs of society and state.  All bets are off, of course, if either side is ever granted unaccountable totalitarian power over life and death--and some would argue that the totalitarian irreligious left tends to rack up a higher body count and leave a bigger crater in the cultures it ravages than the totalitarian religious right.

In any case, religious liberals have little cause to brag about how they (on average) lead the ideological field in tolerance and love for humanity.  Such self-aggrandizement could only lead to a pointless alienation of many political allies on the liberal left (i.e. all the nonreligious ones), and would do nothing to endear moderates who lean religious right either.  Also, self-aggrandizing individuals and groups of any kind quickly fall behind in whatever they congratulate themselves for achieving.  And while there are big humanitarian differences between religious liberals and irreligious conservatives, the differences between religious liberals and irreligious liberals are typically slight, and sometimes only statistically detectable in large samples.

Aware, perhaps, of how close they are to freethinking liberals on most issues that matter, religious liberals are typically not bothered by the fact that most other liberals are relatively irreligious, nor do they tend to be bothered by the fact that the smartest and most effective liberal-leftists are often atheists.  For this among other reasons, religious liberals reject atheism personally, but do not begrudge anyone else their inclination to adopt that worldview.  Yet religious liberals do have some issues with the New Atheist phenomenon more specifically (including the post 9/11 incarnation of Christopher Hitchens), but it is not the atheism in New Atheism that they object to--the objection is rather to the new political and moral polemics that got added to popular atheism after 9/11.

Religious liberals would generally acknowledge the low dogmatism of atheists mentioned earlier, and thus recognize that most atheists are distinctive in their embrace of what philosopher-psychologist William James, in his essay "The Will to Believe," called "a hope for the truth."  A hope for the truth is an inclination to do what it takes to prepare oneself to advance in truth: open one's mind to a new point of view, examine an ideologically "dangerous" question, or consider a possibility that one had not previously contemplated.

If I go back to my readings in God is Not Great with this spirit of self-overcoming adventure in mind, I discover more things about Christopher Hitchens that I like, that I look up to even. It speaks well of Hitchens that he does not regret the religious training of his childhood and sees it even as an introduction to "practical and textual criticism" (p. 2). In his introduction, he frankly admits that "other nonreligious organizations have committed similar crimes" as religious organizations "or even worse ones." (p. 4). This counter-polemical nod to the sometime validity of the views of the other suggests that Hitchens maintains some temperamental affinity with the liberal-progressive atheist-on-the-street and has not entirely swallowed the pill of neoconservative rigidity.  In fact, Hitchens sounds a bit like an atheist protege of William James when he writes:

What we respect is free inquiry, open mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.... We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe; we have music and art and literature, [which] sustains the mind and--since there is no other metaphor--the soul.... We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that, once people accept the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse.... To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the...plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to the other, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth and beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. (God Is Not Great, pp. 6-7)

Here Hitchens paints atheists as lovers of truth, art and peace, more interested in going to museums than killing civilians.  Of course, for the sake of protecting truth, beauty and peace from dictators like Saddam Hussein, sometimes a few hundred thousand civilians must be killed (and museums and libraries of an ancient civilization laid to waste).  But Hitchens, though he has taken the bait of the wealth and fame that promised to accrue to him if he became a high class war propagandist, has not completely elevated his new allegiance to neoconservatism over his lingering inclination to approve of social justice.  He distances himself from the dovish left in general (most notably Gandhi), but he cannot bring himself to repudiate the dovish figure of Martin Luther King.  Hitchens' admiration for King is unimpeded by the fact that he was an unusually religious figure in the pantheon of liberal-left heroes (or that he was an unusually liberal-left figure in the pantheon of religious heroes).  Hitchens writes, "It is quite impossible even for an atheist like myself to read his sermons or watch recordings of his speeches without profound emotion of the sort that can bring genuine tears." In fact, the way Hitchens opens his discussion on King is a concise and beautiful memorial to the power of what King and the movements he worked and died for brought to the U.S. and to the world. I quote Hitchens' words almost in full here:

Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written in response to a group of white Christian clerics who had urged him to show restraint and "patience"--in other words, to know his place--is a model of polemic. Icily polite and generous-minded, it still breathes with an unquenchable conviction that the filthy injustice of racism must be borne no longer.

Taylor Branch's magnificent three-volume biography of Dr. King is successively titled, Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. And the rhetoric with which King addressed his followers was designed to evoke the very story that they all knew best--the one that begins when Moses first tells Pharaoh to "Let my people go." In speech after speech he inspired the oppressed, and exhorted and shamed their oppressors. Slowly, the embarrassed religious leadership of the country moved to his side. Rabbi Abraham Herschel asked, "Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America."

Most eerie of all, if we follow the Mosaic narrative, was the sermon that King gave on the last night of his life. His work of transforming public opinion and shifting the stubborn Kennedy and Johnson administrations was almost done, and he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a long a bitter strike by the city's ground-down garbage collectors, on whose placards appeared the simple words "I Am a Man." In the pulpit at Mason Temple, he reviewed the protracted struggle of the past years and then very suddenly said, "But it doesn't matter with me now." There was silence until he went on. "Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!" Nobody who was there that night has ever forgotten it, and I daresay the same can be said for anyone who views the film that was so fortunately taken of that transcendent moment. The next best way of experiencing this feeling at second hand is to listen to how Nina Simone sang, that same terrible week, "The King of Love is Dead." The entire drama has the capacity to unite elements of Moses on Mount Nebo with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The effect is scarcely diminished even when we discover that this was one of his favorite sermons, and one that he had delivered several times before, and into which he could slip as occasion demanded.

". His most imperative preaching was that of nonviolence. In his version of the story, there are no savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings. Nor are there cruel commandments about the stoning of children and the burning of witches. His persecuted and despised people were not promised the territory of others, nor were they incited to carry out the pillage and murder of other tribes. In the face of endless provocation and brutality, King beseeched his followers to become what they for a while truly became: the moral tutors of America and of the world beyond its shores. He in effect forgave his murderer in advance: the one detail that would have made his last public words flawless and perfect would have been an actual declaration to this effect. (God Is Not Great, pp. 173-175)

Like Hitchens, I was also haunted by King's "Promised Land" speech the first time I encountered it in high school, and I had until then much preferred Malcolm X. It is eerie when people appear to be predicting their own death, and in King's case it was especially eerie, since his death was less than 24 hours away. It is odd that Hitchens gravitates to this more mysterious and uncanny moment in King's oratorical record.  Reflection on King's "Promised land" speech would incline most readers to begin dwelling on spiritual and supernatural considerations.

That this last speech moved Hitchens so deeply is a clear sign that he should not be tarred with the same brush as the neoconservatives with whom he has temporarily made political alliances. While everyone has redeeming features of some sort, I do not expect that Dick Cheney would feel anything other than indigestion if he watched King's last speech in Memphis. I cannot really imagine Cheney watching any of King's speeches without developing a violent tic or slipping into a dissociative coma. Perhaps I am being uncharitable, though, as my thoughts of Cheney are dominated by the image of him firing rapidly from a 28 gauge Perazzi shotgun during a canned quail hunt, and accidentally spraying his elderly friend with bullets in the face, neck and upper torso. Then I imagine that friend apologizing to the vice president on national television for all the trouble he caused by getting shot, and then my mind begins to wander.

End of part 1.

[1] The construction as of 2012 should read "had made",  but as the original version of this piece was written in 2007, I have kept the edited version dated this way also.  Thoughts based on updated historical events are in footnotes.

[2] The philosopher Daniel Dennett is sometimes included in this crew as he is an avowed non-believer and a good friend of Dawkins, but he does not quite meet all the criteria.  Dennett wants atheism to be a robust and growing worldview in a diverse worldview ecosystem, while most New Atheists think that all the religious species in this ecosystem should be destroyed and replaced entirely by subvarieties of atheism (and even some subvarieties of atheism are considered expendable obstacles towards this end).  As a leading member of the "Bright" movement (which would call non-theists "brights" and theists "supers"--both positive names), Dennett only favors "destroying" religion insofar as he expects that allowing atheism to finally be heard will ultimately lead to religious ideas voluntarily disappearing themselves from the ecosystem.  If this is chauvinism, it is chauvinism of the mildest sort. The notion that the violent exercise of raw power might be necessary to bring atheism to unrivalled memetic victory is anathema to Dennett, and, as Wired writer Gary Wolf has noted, to the Bright movement generally.  In 2006, Wolf interviewed the founders of the Brights, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell as part of an article about the New Atheists called the "Church of the Non-believers."  He received a fascinating response when he brought up Sam Harris, who favors stronger medicine for eradicating religion, like converting the War on Terror into a more explicit War on Islam.  Geisert and Futrell "became grim at the mention of Sam Harris. "We don't endorse anything from him,' Geisert said. We had talked for nearly three hours, and this was the only dark cloud."  Dennett's own book addressing religion, Breaking the Spell, did not treat religion with kid gloves by any means, but it ultimately sided with inquiry over tribalism by calling for a systematic study of religion, and systematic studies tend to turn up nuances that annoy ideologues on both sides.  Dennett, sadly, has paid a price for his nuance, as Breaking the Spell has not come close to enjoying the sales of New Atheist blockbusters like Dawkins' The God Delusion, Harris's The End of Faith, or Hitchens' God Is Not Great

[3] Indeed, Dawkins has presumably seen the writing on the wall, and has thus made more statements like the following in recent years: "Given that Islam is such an unmitigated evil [italics mine], and looking at the map supplied by this Christian site, should we be supporting Christian missions in Africa? My answer is still no, but I thought it was worth raising the question [italics mine]."  This sounds quite different from the Dawkins of The God Delusion, who wrote "If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you were born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination" (p. 25).

[4] Hitchens (and Harris) may have persuaded the neoconservatives on other relevant matters also.  While the Bush administration after 9/11 offered homilies about Islam being a religion of peace and reactive prejudice against Muslims received bipartisan condemnation for a while, the Republican party has gradually seen the expedience of attacking Islam itself, and has, in recent years, sought to stimulate rather than sublimate the ethno-religious hatreds that 9/11 exacerbated.

[5] Findings like this may explain why polls occasionally turn up quirky findings on atrocities like killing civilians in war, to which American atheists and Muslims are both distinctively opposed; those of intermediate religiosity-conservatism, like American Catholics and Protestants, are more sanguine.

Submitters Bio:

Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.