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

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". 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.

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[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

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[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.

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Ian Hansen is an Assistant Professor of psychology and the 2017 President of Psychologists for Social Repsonsibility.

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