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January 19, 2012

To Error and Back Again, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christopher Hitchens, Part 2

By Ian Hansen

Part 2 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheits.


Below is part 2 of a three part essay on Hitchens and the New Atheists. Part 1 can be viewed here.

Because Hitchens still writes [1] with an active sense of conscience that runs against the grain of his neoconservative alliances, he continues to have dogged admirers among those who otherwise consider the current Iraq war a crime against humanity and its architects and propagandists (all the other ones) to be war criminals. A good friend of mine, in a heated exchange of many e-mails and many more thousands of words, wrote that "most of what Hitchens writes is a fire that burns fascism." My friend is vehemently against the Iraq war, but I understand why he will not hold Hitchens' pro-war position against him.

My friend is Chilean and a self-proclaimed communist, and he is understandably grateful to Hitchens for successfully taking the truth about U.S. atrocities in Chile to the world.  In the book and documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Hitchens tells the story of the mass murder and torture that the U.S. government unleashed on the people of Chile when the Nixon administration helped to engineer Augusto Pinochet's bloody coup against the democratically-elected Marxist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Many others have told the story of Pinochet's U.S.-assisted coup, but they were much less successful at penetrating public consciousness. In this, and in many other matters of informing an uninformed public, Christopher Hitchens has done the U.S. and the world a great service.  Unfortunately for Hitchens and for all of us, however, The Trials of Henry Kissinger is no longer the first thing that comes to mind when we think of his name.

My friend is probably right that Hitchens deftly wields his pen against everything that stinks to him of fascism, even if his olfactory senses have blunted a little of late. The targets of his righteous rage include ordinary stereotypical fascism as well as the kinds of fascism that pose as anti-fascism yet resemble uncannily what they oppose.  Hitchens does not target his own fascism, of course, or the fascism of the political forces he supports, but this is a blind spot that afflicts most anti-fascists, and almost everyone these days is an anti-fascist with a fascist blindspot or a fascist with an anti-fascist blindspot [2] .  Fascism has psychological roots in relatively universal human qualities like self-justification, ingroup favoritism, and the inclination to morally dissociate while obeying powerful-seeming ingroup authorities.  Given our human susceptibility to fascism, even the most devoted anti-fascists will have some lingering inclinations to embody its vices.  It would be hypocritical to condemn Hitchens for having moral blind spots that almost everyone has.

Seeing Hitchens as a kind of irony-haunted anti-fascist is essential to understanding his muse, in fact.  This perspective can even shed some light on why he is, in some ways, a prickly comrade to the New Atheists.  Usually people beholden to a certain ideology are reluctant to criticize others who claim to share that ideology, even when these others advocate things that outright contradict the spirit of that ideology or otherwise shock the conscience.  Ideologists generally consider it too important to form a common bond against enemy ideologies and thus strategically unsound to criticize the excesses of one's own flock.  But Hitchens' contrarianism (generally an anti-fascist trait) will not allow him to be a fully sycophantic joiner.  He does not unconditionally defend his ideological brethren--whether neoconservative or New Atheist--and the repulsiveness of their advocacy or behavior can occasionally get factored into his judgment of that advocacy and behavior. 

For instance, in God is Not Great Hitchens distances himself from an atheist he otherwise admires and in many ways resembles--H.L. Mencken--by admitting Mencken was a believer in social Darwinism and had some fondness for Hitler and Mein Kampf.  This is no small rhetorical concession.  Hitchens also condemns the atrocities and mass murders of totalitarian communism, speaks frankly of the Trotskyist ideology that once guided him, and admits moreover that many of the worst communist atrocities targeted religious people and institutions. Hitchens refuses to "explain or excuse the killing of priests and nuns and the desecration of churches [under totalitarian communism]--any more than one should excuse the burning of churches and the murder of clergy in Spain during the struggle of the Spanish republic against Catholic fascism." (p. 244).  He does not try to perform rhetorical acrobatics to imply that Lenin and Trotsky were just pretend atheists who were secretly devoted and prayerful believers in God.  He freely admits that they "were certainly convinced atheists who believed that illusions in religion could be destroyed by acts of policy." (p. 244).

These concessions, admittedly, are consistent with Hitchens' neoconservative allegiances.  Before exaggerating the threat from Saddam and "Islamist terror", neoconservatives used to make a living exaggerating the Soviet threat and the supposed worldwide network of Soviet-controlled Godless communist terror cells.  In other writings, however, Hitchens has had the camaraderie-risking courage to criticize even his fellow New Atheist and de facto neoconservative Sam Harris.  Hitchens scolded Harris for writing in the Los Angeles Times that "the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists."  Hitchens deserves credit for being appalled by this remark and calling it irresponsible.  And yet Hitchens himself, even if he shies away from the prospect of making open alliance with European fascists against Islam, is nevertheless a rather expert purveyor of the Islamophobia that appeals so strongly to those fascists in the current era.  In fact, Hitchens has defensively declared that "Islamophobia" is a stupid term--for much the same reason, presumably, that people who run reeducation camps to "cure" homosexuality might consider something like "homophobia" to be a stupid term.  No one likes having their hysterical prejudices exposed as such.

Still, Hitchens' Islamophobia is constrained by a gentility and generosity that is less evident in the writing of Sam Harris.  Harris's anti-Islam advocacy can frequently reach a fever pitch crescendo and Hitchens generally avoids fever pitch crescendos.  Also Hitchens, unlike Harris, is a firm opponent of using torture in the War on Terror or under any other circumstances.  Hitchens even underwent waterboarding to demonstrate his controversial conviction that drowning people is torture.  Harris has been considerably more sanguine about torture, and considers the ticking time bomb thought experiment to be a kind of airtight proof that it is wrong to enact a prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment under all circumstances (as the U.S. Constitution and current international law are wont to do).  Generally, if keeping in mind the passages [3] I quoted earlier from Hitchens' God Is Not Great, certain passages from Harris's own atheism-promoting bestseller stand in stark contrast:

The very ideal of religious tolerance--born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God--is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss. (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 15)

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. (The End of Faith, pp. 52-53)

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime -- as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day -- but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. (The End of Faith, p. 129)

I suspect that Muslim prosperity might even make matters worse, because the only thing that seems likely to persuade most Muslims that their worldview is problematic is the demonstrable failure of their societies. (The End of Faith, p. 133)

Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no. (The End of Faith, pp. 151-152)

Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary. (The End of Faith, p. 199)

"when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand. (The End of Faith, p. 202)

I quote these passages from Harris (originally gathered by an anonymous web commenter pseudonymed Tentaculata) with some trepidation.  To those familiar with contemporary norms of political discourse these passages may not even register as horrifying.  While the sanguine endorsement of torture, defense of killing people for their beliefs and contemplation of preemptive nuclear strikes may come across as somewhat extreme, the passages specifically mentioning Muslims and Islam may not seem nearly as objectionable since they sound so similar to the views commonly heard among the more hawkish Western literati, politicians, and media figures.

If you are having trouble understanding what is outrageous and even terrifying about those passages above, try reading them again, replacing the words "Islamist", "Muslim" and "Islam" with "Zionist", "Jew/Jewish" and "Judaism" respectively.  And recall that in the years leading up to the Holocaust, Jews were blamed for the "Bolshevism" that apparently threatened prosperous Western Christian civilization, and some of the first Jewish victims of the Holocaust were rounded up during sweeps for communists and other leftists.  Today, Muslims are blamed for the "Islamist extremism" that we are told threatens prosperous Western Civilization, whether that means prosperous Judeo-Christian civilization or prosperous Secular Scientific Civilization.  Bolshevism did not turn out to be such a great prize, and Islamist extremism is likewise uninviting, but the Holocaust is a vivid reminder that a legitimate concern about an emergent threat is no excuse for stirring up potentially mass murderous scapegoating against some other ethnic group's religion.  Nor, for that matter, can such concerns justify the expedient evisceration of one's "scruples"--which are often precisely the scruples that contributed to making one's own civilization compelling.

At this point it is fair to object that I have quoted both Harris and Hitchens selectively, painting a considerably greater contrast between them than in fact exists. I have been especially selective with Hitchens, making him out to be a sentimental, weepy, Martin Luther King-loving, museum-going liberal milksop. Some fans of Hitchens may thank me for that.  By implying that the passages I selectively quoted are the core of his ethos, I have been very charitable to that ethos. However, Hitchensian fundamentalists (or anyone who supports honest textual reading really) would say I have cherry-picked the parts of Hitchens that best resemble my own weepy liberal milksoppery and have failed to face the more challenging and discomfiting theses in his polemic.

I have indeed neglected up to now the statements Hitchens makes that might be interpreted as exalting atheism to be the only reliable ideological framework for arriving at true propositions about the universe. Likewise, I have offered no illustration of his caustic condemnation of all competing worldview alternatives as gross, stupid and evil descents into atavaism, detestable epistemological and moral errors hobbling a "mammalian" species that only by atheism has some hope of living up to its uniquely human DNA.  I have treated Hitchens' support for the Iraq War and Islamophobia as ideological tics he picked up from running with a bad crowd, and avoided reprinting the most embarrassing quotations born of these attitudes.  I even used Sam Harris as a kind of "at least he's not as bad as this guy" foil, though Harris in fact has been a much less enthusiastic and consistent defender of the Iraq War.  I have also implied that Hitchens in no way seeks to logically ground his pro-war Islamophobia in his atheism--though he quite explicitly does this, and indeed that is arguably the point of the title for God is not Great and of most of the book itself.

I could say it was out of respect for ordinary atheists that I exercised this self-censorship (though this would be a dodge).  And it is at least true that I do not want to argue against what I consider to be a straw man version of atheism--I am wary of imitating those who treat Pat Robertson's sermons and media rantings as the most intellectually and morally advanced statements on Christianity or Osama bin Laden as the most astute interpreter of Islam.  Even if Hitchens' half genteel half rabid vision sometimes converges with Harris's more consistently apocalyptic and ruthless one, a solid majority of atheists presumably do not hold political visions that mesh much with either of these New Atheist views.

The most benign quotations from Hitchens (about admiring Martin Luther King, enjoying art and conversation and the good things in life, etc), even if they do not fully represent Hitchens' current center of gravity, at least form a reliable and charitable impression of atheists as people.  I would not call these quotations a Nicene creed for atheists, exactly, but rather a good guess at what most atheists would probably nod assent to most of the time. I suspect, in fact, that my selective reading is quite close to what most atheists would say are the ethical-aesthetic correlates of atheism.  In contrast, the moral compromises with destructive power that Hitchens or Harris can sometimes make are not at all close to this essence. I imagine that with some prodding even Hitchens would eventually admit that his contrarian defense of the Iraq War and his anti-Islam chauvinism are his own guilty mammalian pleasures rather than necessary features of atheism. And why should I judge Hitchens or any other atheists by the worst that I can find about them and not rather by the best? Would I want myself or my own faith to be judged that way?

Perhaps with my charitable selectiveness, I have done to God is Not Great what religious liberal-leftists do to the Bible--pick out the humane and numinous parts of it, and throw away the violence-worshipping, slavery-justifying genocidal parts that pop up from time to time. If any atheists take God is Not Great as the authoritative and unalterable Word of Atheism, they might say that I have in fact demeaned the distinctiveness of Hitchensian atheism by embracing only the parts of it that fit with my bleeding heart worldview.  Thus, if I were ever to explicitly claim atheism one day, I would have to admit to being little more than a "cafeteria" atheist--picking and choosing the parts of atheism that I like, and otherwise ignoring or condemning Hitchens' papal encyclicals to join the forces of Shock and Awe as well as Harris's fatwahs to rain down fires of death and destruction on Islamic Civilization.  Those who would worship the Words of New Atheism might condemn any atheist who followed my seductive lead as an apostate, unfit to be called an atheist.

Of course most atheists would note, correctly, that in fact they generally do not feel the need to worship every word written by those they generally admire, nor do they feel the need to execute or shun their "apostates", or to go around persecuting each other for having heretical alternative interpretations of atheism.  These are, for the most part, religious pathologies--and perhaps also pathologies of those who embrace certain ideologies with religious intensity, e.g. communism.  And yet this type of factionalism, while not yet leading to bloodletting among the 21st Century faithless, is not something that atheists are immune to by any means.

Not-so-new atheists favor strategic alliances with religious liberals on matters of teaching evolution in schools, supporting rights that religious people tend to oppose (like LGBT rights), condemning violent fundamentalism and opposing anti-atheist discrimination and prejudice. Those who fully embrace the New Atheist agenda, on the other hand, are called to battle valiantly against all religionists--fascist, conservative, moderate, liberal and liberationist.  Though all sides of the non-believing divides can be sharp-tongued with each other, the New Atheist position is arguably the one that is most fiercely opposed to nuance.  Richard Dawkins has even seen fit to write an essay called "I'm an atheist, but..." condemning those who are not sufficiently hostile to religion or emphatic in their atheism.

Though Hitchens fights off this New Atheist lack of nuance in some ways, he lets it creep into his judgment in many other ways, and even lets it color his account of Martin Luther King (which, as noted earlier, was otherwise quite compelling). Hitchens bothers to mention King at all in a book exalting atheism because King's life and work is such a clear anecdotal counterexample to the thesis that "religion poisons everything."  While giving King his due for the most part, Hitchens copes with King's status as a religious-yet-nevertheless-kind-and-courageous-person by asking us to entertain the possibility that perhaps King was not so religious after all.

Such an argument does not have to be preposterous.  For instance, insofar as King's reading of the Bible was more charitable than it was literal (focusing on the libratory and numinous aspects of the text), in the eyes of some Christians he would not meet the criteria for being a true Christian.  To the most politically and economically muscular authorities of Christianity, the faith requires undoubting belief in every proposition in the Bible as the literal Word of God (though of course non-literalist Christians would retort that politically muscular churches do not own interpretive rights to Christianity, and that even so-called Biblical literalists tend to be transparently guilty of selective textual emphasis [4] ). 

Hitchens' argument for King's un-Christianness takes this Christian literalist argument and turns it inside out.  His case rests on the assertion that King was too humane and reasonable to be counted among the Christians: "At no point did Dr. King"even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next". In no real, as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian" (God Is Not Great, p. 176).  Though Hitchens does not make the outright claim that King was just offering the rhetoric that he knew other Christians would be receptive to in order to advance atheist-style social justice in a Christian-controlled country, he makes this inference very easy to draw: "The entire self-definition of "the South' was that it was white and Christian.  This is exactly what gave Dr. King his moral leverage, because he could outpreach the rednecks.  But the heavy burden would never have been laid upon him if religiosity had not been so deeply entrenched to begin with" (p. 179).

I myself very much doubt that King's public religiosity weighed upon him as a "heavy burden," or that he was telling politically savvy white lies when he claimed theism or Christianity. Unlike Hitchens' neoconservative friends who (at least used to) follow Leo Strauss's injunction to publicly embrace right wing fundamentalist religion as a "noble myth" while secretly scoffing at it, I do not think that King craftily showed a religious face to the people while privately rejecting Christianity as plebian nonsense appropriate only for the spinal cord-driven masses.  A smart heroin dealer does not shoot up himself, but it is safe to say from King's speeches and from the testimonies of others close to him that he had a God-loving needle in his arm--and the movement he came to lead was better off for it. 

Hitchens is not the first to surmise that King was just using religion to get America behind his deeply secular socialist-humanist agenda, but unlike most others, Hitchens makes this smear on King's political and religious honesty with charitable intentions. FBI director at the time J. Edgar Hoover infamously reasoned along similar lines, but instead of being touched by the ethical excellence of what King was trying to do, Hoover felt his power and ideology threatened by it. Hoover believed King was a communist, not a Christian (he considered them mutually exclusive), because King was way too cozy with progressive forces like labor leaders, anti-war activists and fans of Swedish social democracy (and Sweden is, truth be told, one of the most atheistic societies in the world, and a fine example of what a healthy model of good living a largely atheist society can provide).

Although Hoover's wire tapping, blackmail, encouragements to commit suicide and general intimidation did not impede King's work as much as Hoover had hoped, the fact that Hitchens still echoes Hoover's libel and has probably convinced many of his readers to believe it too suggests that Hoover made some long term contribution to distorting our memories of the man.

Still, since Hitchens' attempt to out King as a faux Christian is meant to be complimentary, it is an interesting twist on Hoover's hysterical paranoia. In the early years of Christianity, when Christians embraced non-violent radicalism against Roman imperial tyranny and Christian devotees cheerfully went to be eaten by circus lions after short lives of relentlessly teaching peace and brotherhood, they began to gain a good reputation among the more enlightened Roman citizenry. The numinously-inclined worshippers of Roman gods were potentially moved by comparisons of Christian martyrdom to that of the pagan hero Socrates.  To the extent Christians could portray themselves as "just like the best pagans" they gained pagan sympathy.

It is common to compliment individuals of another group that you generally detest by saying that some of them are in fact honorary members of your own group. The classic Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, in fact, is about how a Samaritan, in spite of his obvious ethno-religious shortcomings, could live up to and even exceed the expectations of Jewish ethical teachings.  The Samaritan of the parable forfeits safety and convenience to save a wounded Jewish robbery victim after Jewish authorities had seen the same victim and walked by on the other side of the road.  By insinuating that the Samaritan was something of an "honorary Jew"--and indeed a better Jew than those who passed by the victim--Jesus was by no means attempting to insult the Samaritan. By insisting that Martin Luther King was not a Christian but rather an exemplary inheritor of Hitchens-like secular modernist values, Hitchens bestows on King a similar kind of ethnocentric honor.  It is thus pointless to be too offended on King's behalf.

I myself am inclined to bestow ethnocentric honors from time to time, and insofar as I feel my faith should compel courage for the sake of truth I can find many "honorary Christians" among atheists.  One of my favorite modern stories of courage for the sake of truth [5] is that of Ron Ridenhour.  Ridenhour was a green beret during the Vietnam War whose Mormon friend Mike Terry told him about his first hand experience of the My Lai Massacre. Terry had silently disobeyed orders after being commanded by Lieutenant William Calley to murder the approximately 500 villagers at My Lai.  Terry did not, however, stand between the guns and the villagers or rebuke Lieutenant Calley's command.  In fact Terry later took part in something between mercy killing and mass murder when the screams of the survivors became too much for him to bear. Ridenhour found other testimonies that confirmed Terry's and he then distributed news of the atrocity widely in the hope of finding someone who would listen. Eventually the New Yorker's Seymour Hersch picked up the story and it has been a bracing historical corrective to American moral self-congratulation ever since.

In Ridenhour's description of how he came to know about My Lai, he notes at one point that he is an atheist. It is not clear, of course, what role Ridenhour's atheism played in his determination to spread the bad news of the My Lai Massacre. But certainly both his atheism and his horror at war's propensity for mass murder of noncombatants were psychologically compatible with the extremely low authoritarianism he manifested by his whistle-blowing [6] .

Unfortunately, atheists in the mould of Ridenhour seem less capable of writing bestsellers or setting the tone for emergent atheist movements.  After 9/11, as our military-industrial complex has busied itself with spying on, stealing from, torturing and killing Muslims, atheists who can work with, rather than against, the Western upsurge in authoritarian hatred of Muslims are more likely to draw media attention and have their work reviewed and promoted by establishment media outlets. 

I would imagine that if the key power brokers in the publishing establishment promoted atheists who had the wit, writing skills and name recognition of Harris and Hitchens but who shunned all their militaristic Islamophobic nonsense, atheists would buy up their books at warp speeds also--though perhaps the rest of the population would not.  Atheists who purchase New Atheist bestsellers are not deliberately trying to soil their own collective reputation.  The most charitable interpretation of the popularity of Harris and Hitchens among atheists is that atheists have long been hungry for some prominent media representatives--any media representatives--to bring recognition of their perspectives into national and international discourse.  Hawkish and/or torture-loving Islamophobia with a dose of Dr. Strangelove cannot be logically deduced from the basic axiom of atheism, of course.  Sadly, though, hawkish torture-loving Islamophobia appears to be effective packaging when marketing atheism post-9/11.

End of part 2.

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

[2] In light of the recent replay of the Ron Paul racist-homophobic newsletter controversy, Paul's "ghostwriters" (as well as his admirers in Stormfront and the John Birch Society) seem to be relatively clear examples of fascists with anti-fascist blind spots (insofar as it is fascist to peddle racism and homophobia, and anti-fascist to oppose torture, imperial wars, the War on Drugs, indefinite military detention without trial, etc.).

[3] Available in Part 1.

[4] Some might also note that the New Testament only uses the phrase "the Word" when referring to Jesus, and uses "the scriptures" when referring to the Tanakh or Old Testament.  And New Testament statements on the scriptures are generally pretty anodyne, not what any reasonable person would consider commanding of literalist worship.

[5] Today I would choose the-person-who-is-actually-guilty-of-the-"crimes"-of-which-Bradley-Manning-is-accused, though the religious affiliation of that individual remains unknown.

[6] Coincidentally, a student who refused to administer even the lowest shock in a Princeton replication of psychologist Stanley Milgram's well-known obedience experiment was also named Ron Ridenhour.

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.