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.
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".
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.
piece is long, it will be posted in three parts. Part 1 is below.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
Christopher Hitchens has been making 
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.
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  .
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  .
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  .
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.
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
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