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Life Arts    H4'ed 1/18/12

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

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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.

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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