Hitchens v. God

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To the sometimes solemn literary cottage-industry of neo-atheism, Christopher Hitchens — with his manifesto: God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything — brings his famous English-school-boy wit, come to full blossom now in the great American music hall. Of the late Jerry Falwell, Hitchens told Sean Hannity this week, “If they gave him an enema he could have been buried in a matchbox.” On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, plugging the new book, Hitchens opened with the line that the most over-rated virtue is faith, defined as “believing the most stuff with the least evidence…” Of his new enterprise, he added: “If you can call somebody a man of faith, or ‘faith based,’ it seems at the moment like a compliment. I’d like to change that.”

Is Hitchens serious? Or is he making familiar old Enlightenment sport at the credulity of the imbecilic natives, here and elsewhere? I suspend judgment, even on a close reading of his book, and finally it may be a matter of taste. But the push-back that he and others are pressing against the rise of fundamentalism and theocracy is more than merely provocative. It is by now a best-selling phenomenon.

Aren’t the real questions: why now? what if anything is new here? and just possibly true? And by the way: who started the donnybrook, and who set the street-fighting terms, between (as novelist Marilynne Robinson has written in a truly impressive review essay, “That Highest Candle” on American Religious Poems ) “those who assign the failings of the country to its lapse from traditional religion, and … those who assign our failings to the obdurate persistence of traditional religion.”

Anthony Gottlieb’s review in the current New Yorker makes Hitchens the fourth into the scrum of “Atheists with Attitude.” First was Sam Harris with The End of Faith, 33 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 2004. Then Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, with the neo-Darwinist Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, an Open Source conversation in March, 2006. We passed on the British biologist Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion last year. Harris was back in the market with his Letter to a Christian Nation. And now comes Hitchens with the seal of his own style on the sure-fire themes.

There are memorably clever turns in Hitchens’s inventory of personal stories. Like the question from the broadcaster Dennis Prager: were Hitchens to find himself at twilight in a strange city, would he feel safer or less safe on seeing a crowd of men approaching and learning that the they were just coming from a prayer meeting? From his own travels in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad (“just to stay within the letter ‘B'”), Hitchens answered, he had reason to feel “immediately threatend” by men coming from religious observances. On each ‘B” hangs a cautionary tale. Much else in the book could be filed under “bombast.”

Page 56: Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience…

Page 64: One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms — had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think — though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one — that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.

Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Not for Hitchens the aesthetic and existential subtleties of — from the other end of the reading table — Marilynne Robinson’s piece on The Library of America’s American Religious Poems. She writes:

It is important to remember that religious thought has had brilliant expression throughout world culture, and that the idea of the sacred has refined the sense of the beautiful in every civilization. The very narrow sense in which the word is understood in the public conversation in contemporary America — again, by many of its proponents and defenders as well as by its critics — distracts from the profound resonances of religion throughout history. An afternoon with the Vedas, an evening with The Drowned Book, another look at the Oresteia or the Psalms or at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address would be more than sufficient to recall us all to a recognition of the fact that the Pat Robertsons and the Pat Buchanans of our moment do not epitomize religion…

Marilynne Robinson, “That Highest Candle,” Poetry, May 2007

This, of course, is comparing apples and oranges, but then Hitchens cries out for some comparative context, and we mean to find some for him. Marilynne Robinson is a conversation for another day, let us pray. First, Hitchens’s version of hardball. Questions please!

Christopher Hitchens

Author, most recently, of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,

Contributing editor, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic Monthly

Contributor, The Nation, Slate, and The Daily Mirror

Eddie Glaude, Jr.

Associate Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Author, Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early 19th Century Black America

Co-editor, African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology

Extra Credit Reading

Christopher Hitchens — Religion

Anthony Gottlieb, Atheists with Attitude, The New Yorker, May 21, 2007: “So how is a would-be iconoclast supposed to tell exactly what the faithful believe? Interpreting the nature and prevalence of religious opinions is tricky, particularly if you depend on polls. Respondents can be lacking in seriousness, unsure what they believe, and evasive. Spiritual values and practices are what pollsters call “motherhood” issues: everybody knows that he is supposed to be in favor of them.”

Leora Tanenbaum, Christopher Hitchens to God: Drop Dead, The Huffington Post, May 16, 2007: “Yes, yes. Atheists and believers alike know that religion has lubricated mass acceptance of misogyny, slavery, and tyranny. But so have secular, non-religious leaders and regimes. Even after reading Hitchens’ catalogue of atrocities committed in the name of religion, I am still unconvinced that religion, in and of itself, is the problem.”

Lupe, The smartest guy in the room , Lupe’s MySpace Blog, May 18, 2007: “I’m not really a Christopher Hitchens fan, not even an admirer. But I do respect his badass-edness. He’s like the Chuck Norris of intellectuals – fast, hard, brutal, and favors blue jeans.”

Jimmy, Christopher Hitchens and my Universalist ideology. , Jimmy’s MySpace Blog, May 18, 2007: “It’s true that I’m a Roman Catholic. I love my faith; it touches me every time I go to Mass; so then why do I like Christopher Hitchens so much? I admire the man’s passion against religious upheaval in the world.”

Gagdad Bob, Freedom, Virtue, and Alignment With the Real, One Cosmos, May 18, 2007: “Thus, it would not be exactly correct to say that Christopher Hitchens is on my side in the war, since he would go after me with similar gusto once the Islamists were out of the way — just as the Islamists went after America as soon as the Soviet Union was out of the way.”

SkeleTony, Atheism on the Rise?, Man Eats Own Brain, May 18, 2007: “I think we are actually seeing real change occurring. Ten or 15 years ago you could not DREAM of an out-of-the-closet atheist hosting or even being a regular contributor to news and talk shows. Even admitted atheistic actors (Robert Deniro, Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Reeve, etc.) did not go to any measurable lengths to talk about atheism or theism.”

Jib, In re Christopher Hitchens and God, Jiblog, May 18, 2007: “What I do not understand about Hitchens and other atheists of his ilk is their deep, personal animosity towards something they do not believe to exist. It is a vibrant hatred that most people can only summon for the real and the tactile.”

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  • Nick

    How to make Chris Hitchens and his ‘neo-atheist’ cabal lose interest in their current anti-religion activism.

    Imagine a new global, ecumenical convocation of the three Abrahamic faiths. All of them, from Branch Davidians to Greek Orthodoxy, from Hassidim to Islamists. And they end their massive convention by issuing the following statement:

    We are appalled by the violence and intolerance our beliefs and faith-institutions have engendered, enabled, and otherwise promoted throughout the history of monotheism. We not only regret this, we seek, now, and admittedly belatedly, to atone. We recognize that the harm rises plainly from our claims to certain knowledge of the deity we purport to speak for—and we now candidly admit the implicit and explicit conceit of these claims. We have long claimed humility – but falsely – for surely mere humans cannot humbly claim to know the mind of the universe’s creator.

    We therefore renounce our claims to certainty.

    Instead of conviction we offer hope: hope that our belief in an immortal soul is neither vain nor mere vanity masquerading as religiosity. Hope that the God we have long believed listens to our self-obsessed entreaties might actually exist in the cosmos beyond our minds’ capacity for imagination and outside of our hearts’ yearnings for the comforts of parental love and approval.

    But we no longer promise this to the young we hope to influence. We will instead become, for the first time in monotheism’s troubled and troubling existence, authentically humble.

    We confess our abject ignorance.

    We confess our dismay that so many more prayers prove futile than those that seem to have been postively answered as articulated. We admit that double-blind prayer experiments yield not a whit of difference in the lives of those prayed for.

    We will no longer pretend that our child recovered from a sickness because a Deity favored us and our prayer while apparently ignoring the even more devoutly offered prayers of parents and children living in dire poverty and in barbaric, hostile circumstances.

    We admit that such beliefs are unconscionable conceits.

    And we apologize.

    We hope for something more, though: we hope to inspire greater love within the hearts of our co-religionists: not for themselves but for all others – even those others who do not share our beliefs and our hopes. We will no longer demand that human love be personified in our venerated mythological figures, but will hereafter allow and encourage love to be venerated as a good in and of itself. We will remodel our temples, churches, and mosques to reflect this – and will then invite non-believing others to share their stories of the profoundly transforming power of unpersonified love. Because, in our new and earnest humility, we confess that those outside our faith traditions might have profoundly valuable lessons of love to share with us.

    And we will edit and revise our sacred texts to reflect this historical reformation from insufferable arrogance and the cocksure certainty of faith to genuine humility and plainly confessed hope.

    Any religion or sect that cannot or will not make such a concession to reason, to humankind, and to its own parishioners fully deserves the scorn of Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest of us non-believers too. And why must it fall to plebeian skeptics like me to have to point this out?

  • hurley

    Nick, Forgive me my morning-after bias, cher ami, but Hitchens’ drinking his own business, no? Though some might say his transfiguration from fiery anti-imperialist to war-mongering crusader fairly smacks of alcoholic rapture, sodden revelation, etc. Where his politics are concerned, I always thought there was an element of self-prophecy in his description of Paul Johnson as someone who, having lost his faith, believes he has found his reason. His atheist bona fides aside, his unswerving faith in his own infallibility suggests at least one ironic parallel. I haven’t read the book, but the excerpts read like dispatches from a closed circuit: he knows where he’s going, and the reader does too. You’ll both be there soon enough — and, it has to be said, most likely entertained if not enlightened along the way. I wonder if one reason for his opposition to religion in all of its manifestations is that he seems to have no feeling for either music or art? Hard to listen to Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and not marvel at the belief — the belief, not the object of belief — that brought it into being. Much as I sometimes tire of Christian iconography — Bloody Christ, not you again! — there are paintings on Christian themes that I return to again and again — and I say this as someone who was expelled from nursery school for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation, under God”) and whose disbelief has never wavered. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by other people’s belief, and sometimes charmed by it, as by Updike explaining that the reason he goes to church is that “it’s the only place in public where I’m allowed to sing.”

    If you can’t get Gary Wills, Terry Eagleton might be a good replacement (I love the imposture the open source model invites). He wrote a review of Dawkins’ latest that might be usefully brought into the conversation:


  • Potter

    I read Hurley , who I am in line with, after I wrote this:

    I love that atheists, non-theists and scientists ( 90% of whom are apparently non-religious) are speaking more loudly now. I think this has to do with the point in history that we have arrived at, the rise of fundamentalism, it’s influences ( here in the USA and in the Middle East) and how it connects to the real and dire problems that we must solve to survive on one planet so interconnected.

    Congratulations to Mr. Hitchens on becoming a citizen.

    Nick regarding your last two italicized paragraphs: I agree but I would put it this way: In a world that is growing smaller and smaller, intermixed and connected, the virtual walls that each religion traditionally builds, maintains and fortifies around itself in order to “do it’s work” gets penetrated over under around and through more than ever. The reaction, in defense, in some quarters at least, is, as it has been through time, fear and hatred resulting in war and walls, deeper isolation, close-mindedness, intolerance. These “forces of evil” take hold in places, are rationalized (extremism in defense of religion- no sin, even mandatory). It is wrong-headed and worse but understandable. People want to protect their culture, their way of life. Believers in their zeal or fear of losing something precious turn themselves into something ugly too often, turn away from embracing, being expansive and inclusive, having dialogue. They turn towards defensive positions (the opposite of what Jesus preached as I understand Jesus). As well, aand maybe that this point, religious leaders get enthralled with their power over others and their need to protect their domains. ( It is forgotten by laypeople that religious leaders are fallible humans.)

    Attacking religion frontally does not work though. Also fighting over religion or against it takes us away from cooperation which we so desperately need.

    I have no problem with religion other than intolerance which may be a large part of it as practiced- I don’t know. But we are not going to get rid of religion. I love E. O. Wilson for recognizing this. Religion at it’s best serves, and in my opinion transmits a form of wisdom, maybe not complete, but which imparts a way to live, to appreciate beauty, and feel love. Learning about religion (and experiencing art) makes us feel connected to the past, to others: evolved from that, a part of it, not alien or antagonistic towards it. I don’t want to deny religion it’s place now and in history.

    At the same time religions today need to accept and respect science and in places retreat and update interpretations. Fundamentalism is a wall against that. Scripture needs interpretation that works to reflect the whole of humanity, the modern condition in all it’s aspects. There is plenty left for belief in God. But the world needs the sobriety of science and reason to have a chance to survive.

    I think this is what is being asked of religion. I don’t think that the rolling sea change that is needed ongoing can happen through iconoclasm (although a bit of iconoclasm maybe necessary) and not especially from a reversal of the intolerance. The imaginary convocation with such a declaration and apology won’t happen of course either. It will be instead a lot of “hard work”, more trying to live together, conversations like this one maybe, and include yet more bloodshed ( everyday), bloodshed that most of don’t want to be a part of, see or know about or have time or stomach for.

    It’s also an often ugly battle right here in this country- the battle for tolerance, not imposing what you believe on everyone else.

    What so hard about allowing others their widest possible choices to believe, to live to die as they please? That’s what I thought was so great about this experiment which we have to get back to imo. Openness and acceptance has to be all the way around.

  • ambiguity

    Speaking as a refugee from fundamentalism, I agree with Hitchens on a lot of his points about religion; however, if faith is “believing the most stuff with the least evidence…” doesn’t this describe some of Hitchens’ political positions, for instance his support of Bush and the Iraq war? Hasn’t this kind of blind faith been a malignant influence on current foreign policy? I’d be interested to hear him address what looks like a clear disconnect here. And should I bring up free market true belief as well? Believing in the most stuff with the least evidence is not exclusive to religion–it seems to be thriving throughout our culture. Maybe that quote itself is the issue, and religion is just one example.

  • hurley

    (Enjoyed your ecumenical encyclical, Nick.)

  • I’m not sure that Hitchens and Robinson are at opposites on the spectrum. As profound as art may be, it is not a belief system. All art starts with the physical medium in some aspect in spite of the objective of transcendence. Some would say this is art’s major drawback and that which differentiates it from religion. Even the bible can be read for its literary value irrespective of the belief system it proposes, just ask Harold Bloom. And yet which religion is deconstructing the bible?

    As in art, attempts to canonize interpretation is where the trouble starts. It removes the individual transcendence from the formula: no two individual reactions can be the same so how to form a consensus? A curious paradox is the “Personal Jesus” that enjoys current canonical popularity. But how can something so uniquely personal be canonical? It requires a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

  • Bobo

    I laughed a little to myself when I opened this thread and saw that Nick had the first comment. I was hoping this would be the case as I was reading the intro. For anyone who wonders why, I refer you to the excellent and, at times, long-winded debate on the Paglia thread.

    I’m not going to rehash my theist arguments from that thread, so I’ll try to interject a little new material to this debate. I tried to invoke her name a couple of times on the zoology shows, but this particular topic seems even more suited to her current work. The subject is Mary Midgley. Her most recent book: Science and Poetry. Here’s a brief description from the Guardian UK.

    “It is entirely characteristic that her latest book, Science And Poetry takes its epigraph from Richard Dawkins, “Science is the only way we have of understanding the real world”, and proceeds to dance all over this apparently reasonable statement. It’s not that she considers science a bad way of knowing the real world. But it is only one among many, and one which must be kept in firmly its place.”

    Religion may poison some people, but it is not itself a poison. Did we stop doing science after we saw the results of Hiroshima and Auschwitz? Some people did. Some people retreated to communes or hid behind the reactionary ignorance of McCarthyism. But science remains a useful and relevant way of looking at our world, so it did not fade from our collective imagination, no matter how many horrors it allowed us to commit.

    Religion is no different. It won’t go away just because people learn about empiricism. It won’t stop being relevant just because we find hints of the ‘grand mystery’ in quantum physics or molecular genetics. It won’t fade into the obscurity of secular unitarianism, agnosticism, or ig-theism. It is here to stay because IT IS IMPORTANT. Hitchens is preaching a dogma of ignorance just as much as Jerry Falwell (God curse his soul). Religion is not a poison to the intellect anymore than science is a poison to the soul.

    I embrace both in my life and swim happily in the paradox. And my life is the better for it.

  • Potter

    Hurley- Thanks for the Eagleton link. I guess I am a mealy-mouthed liberal. Well Eagleton in his defense of religion is about as bitchy and he claims Dawkins is. And he goes off the deep end on his interpretation, sophisticated, but presented it as though it were more universal than I think it really is. (His version is as representative as fundamentalism is of all who believe in God I suspect. ) So Eagleton does make a case, a rebuttal to Dawkins and maybe Hitchens, of sorts but does not account for all the ugly rest. And in doing so he is unnecessarily demeaning and harsh. So, since I have not read Dawkins’ book, I’ll not swallow whole how he characterizes Dawkin’s views.

    I mentioned Daniel Lazare’s review of all mentioned ( Dawkins, Eagleton, Hitchens, Harris) in “The Nation”. The link again:

    Among the Disbelievers

  • mcoverdale

    I hope someone will ask Mr. Hitchens how he reconciles his (I think reductive) version of Jefferson as heroic deist, who rejects an interventionist God, with this, from Notes on the State of Virginia:

    “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

  • Sutter

    Ok, so I’ve read the syllabus that Nick, Potter and others set forth, both here and in the previous thread. I’ve read Angier on God and the scientists; Eagleton on Dawkins; Dyson on Dennett; and Lazare on everyone. And my reaction is that there’s a lot of agreement here, though it’s latent. I want to try to make it explicit, in a way that I think also amplifies Nick’s opening post here. I promise this is going somewhere.

    Each and every one of these readings, in one way or another, is struggling for a distinction – a distinction between religion as an account of creation and our physical world and religion as an account of the numinous, that which has no corporeal, observable effect:

    • Angier asks, from the atheist’s point of view, why scientists are willing to allow a place for God when they are so willing to dismiss the case for astrology. Her answer, in short, is that the difference comes down to politics: Attacks on God make on unpopular. But that can’t be it: Many scientists DO criticize religion, and scoff at fundamentalism outright. I see the distinction as being somewhere else: To the extent religion is about ethics and spirituality, scientists are happy to concede its relevance; to the extent astrology is about predicting real-world events, they will have none of it.

    • Eagleton argues, from the believer’s point of view, that Dawkins asks too much of religion by asking it to account (correctly, at that) for Creation and the mechanics of the universe; these issues, Eagleton suggests, are not the proper purview of religion.

    • Dyson, similarly, chastises Dennett for seeking to use the tools of science to evaluate religion, whereas, in Dyson’s view, these tools were “designed for a different purpose.”

    • Lazare closes by allowing that the question of God and questions of “religion and much else about the modern condition” might be decoupled.

    So, what I want to ask is this: If the defense of God against the empiricists is that God speaks to concerns not empirically assessable – “it’s not the reality, stupid!” – then does the empirical question about God – “does God exist?” – really matter at all? As noted by many (including Chris here), a lot of ink has been spilled on the God Question of late. And based on the above, it seems that the principal defense is that God is immune from empirical inquiry. If so, I think the faithful must retreat from their attempts to claim special insight into our material world (creation and evolution and all that), but that’s an issue for another day. The deeper question is: If the import of the answer to “the God question” is exclusively metaphysical (or spiritual or ethical or whatever you might call it), can’t believers get where they want to go without demonstrating – or even accepting – the case for God? And can’t non-believers get there too? What does actual belief get you that you can’t get from (to use Dyson’s term) the mere “belief in belief”? If we’ve moved beyond questions about how we got here and religion is best understood as a mechanism for attaining particular mental states (please, please read Geertz’s “Religion as a Cultural System) and guiding us in our interaction with one another, hasn’t it become entirely decoupled with any accounts of what did or did not happen thousands of years ago (including, but not limited to, creation itself)?

    To make this a bit more concrete, a wonderful novel of the past five years or so (I don’t want to name it because my comments will give something critical away, but you’ve heard of it) makes this point very nicely. At the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that the entire story has been a lie, designed to put a much more pleasant face on a cold, difficult reality (no, it’s not Ishiguro). The protagonist tells both stories to some other parties who are investigating the events that instigated the story in the first place. He is asked which story is true. He points out to these investigators that it doesn’t really matter, because neither story will definitively answer the original question, and asks them which story they would prefer to be true. They respond that they prefer the first story, which was much more pleasant. His response (strangely omitted in some editions…) is “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” I thought this was really a brilliant remark about religion, which turned a fun, well-written novel into one of my all-time favorites. If we acknowledge (as Eagleton and many others do) that we can’t rely on faith to answer concrete questions about our physical world and rely on God principally for internal reasons – how belief in God makes us feel or act – then belief can be a matter of choice, and there might be a value in choosing a story we believe or even KNOW to be false, simply because – if we can effectuate the self-deception – it will make us feel better than the alternative. I can deny God’s existence based on the evidence but still decide, counter-intuitively, that I want to act AS IF God DID exist. And if the “true believer” and I agree that this belief matters only for metaphysical/spiritual purposes, his or her true belief should be no more compelling or motivating than my synthetic belief, and there’s really no difference between the two. Ultimately, what I get from these articles, and from the novel, is that whether God exists doesn’t matter nearly as much as people think.

    Now, I can already hear Hitchens’s response to me: “If he wants to live under a self-imposed delusion, he can be my guest.” That response works if my self-imposed delusion prompts me to kill presumed heretics, or to do other things I ordinarily would not do, or to accept false beliefs about our materialist reality. But at the end of the day, that’s not the kind of belief I wind up with. Rather, I think I end with the belief of Spinoza – a belief that there is something eternal, a knowledge that this belief itself offers me communion with something deeper than that which I can observe, and (most critically) a recognition that there is nothing in my set of beliefs that can be used to justify hegemonic or violent behavior toward those with other beliefs.

    Well, I’ve rambled on too long. I look forward to any thoughts/reactions/criticisms.

  • Potter

    Sutter- great. I want to get E.O. Wilson into this too. He is much more accepting of religion though an atheist. I think it’s because he sees religion as part of evolution and as having a purpose ( as you are getting at).

    At the end you say : Now, I can already hear Hitchens’s response to me: “If he wants to live under a self-imposed delusion, he can be my guest.” That response works if my self-imposed delusion prompts me to kill presumed heretics, or to do other things I ordinarily would not do, or to accept false beliefs about our materialist reality.

    Don’t you mean that response does NOT work if your delusion prompts you to kill? As long as one is prompted to kill by ones delusions, one cannot “be my guest”.

    But “at the end of the day” I agree that it’s where ( what state) one’s beliefs/non-beliefs transport one to that matters and the particulars are of interest of course but should not be a matter of contention so long and they do not ( as you say) “justify hegemonic or violent behavior toward those with other beliefs” or non/belief.

  • chilton1

    Ambiguity -I am a fellow refugee…which had the unfortunate effect of making me jump from one dogma to another for awhile until I settled on ant-dogma dogma.

    Potter – you should add ANTI-theist to your list – for some it is not enough to be a- or non- theist. I suspect Hitchens and Dawkins are in this category. Don’t forget Bertrand Russell -especially don’t forget his teapot before we start weighing theory’s against each other.

  • manning120

    The following questions come to mind that I think Hitchins and his detractors might address:

    1. As Potter just suggested, does evolution account for our readiness to believe in the existence of something beyond our mundane lives, something not fully comprehensible? Has the religious attitude evolved (I speak of Darwinian evolution) along with human intelligence, but not particular religious contents, so that we may disagree over the contents, but must accept the reality of the attitude?

    2. Does religion, to satisfy an evolved need to follow rules of behavior, provide moral codes or standards, so that the need itself to follow moral rules has a legitimacy that particular rules lack?

    3. Are modern religions essentially adult versions of the story of Santa Claus? If so, does the editor’s comment that there is a Santa Claus tell us something more profound than how to comfort a child?

    4. Assuming that human intelligence has evolved to a level well beyond that of any other animal, and that intelligence entails the exercise of reason, is the most important fault of modern religion its claim to provide authority for beliefs contrary to reason?

    5. More specifically, what do we have to fear from religious beliefs, held by people who control social and military institutions, in such things as Armageddon, the rise of the Anti-Christ and the return of Christ, the mandatory veneration of Muhammad, the establishment of “official” religion and other modes of suppression of dissent from religious doctrine, and the imposition by government of fundamentalist codes like Sharia and those of Christian Reconstructionism?

  • Sutter


    I was too ambiguous. Having read a lot of Hitchens’ stuff and seen him in action, my sense is that his response would be “You’re saying we should delude ourselves into believe that which we know is not true. That is always dangerous, and leads to results like 9/11 and the Inquisition and so on.” (The “be my guest” was a rhetorical flourish of the sort I associate with CH.) That rejoinder is effective only if my synthetic belief would prompt me to act in certain ways — as a jihadi, as the perpetrator of genocide, etc. So, CH and I agree, I think, that the kind of faith practiced by many IS dangerous. But I don’t think the response is effective when deployed to rebut the kind of “belief” I describe, which rejects the wordly injunctions of many common Organized Religions in favor of a blander and more neutral spirituality.

  • Nick

    Sutter, re your 5:45 PM’s “You’re saying we should delude ourselves into believe that which we know is not true…”

    Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.

    — Mark Twain 😉

    More quotes, from Wikiquote’s Richard Dawkins page:

    I want to examine that dangerous thing that’s common to Judaism and Christianity as well: the process of non-thinking called faith.

    Me too. (I think the problem here isn’t actually the putative existence of supernatural entities. I think it’s the culturally sanctioned, reinforced, or encouraged decision to believe in propositions bereft of any empirical evidence or rational reason. The cure is education – especially mandatory high school level education in logical fallacy. More on this later…)

    One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are not really answers at all.

    Right. Like, “God works in mysterious ways.”

    And Dawkins, one last time, speaking to the notion that biblical tales aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally:

    Oh, but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic?! So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any other conclusion than “barking mad”.

    No comment.

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your posts and hope for more from you. (Was delighted to see your byline in this thread.)

    Potter, I’m working on my response to Lazare’s review and will post it or a link to it soon (my scarce time permitting).

    Hurley, point taken on the first sentence of your 9:40 AM – I regretted it shortly after posting. Even so, there’s an important problem well beyond that of my impolite carelessness:

    Although I’m likely to agree with nearly all of Hitchens’s points, I can’t really abide his casual and frequent resort to contemptuousness. And if I won’t like it, neither will many others who might otherwise have possibly been influenced, in the direction he might have hoped for, by his book. A discredited messenger, even if the ‘discredit’ results from pure character assassination and is not genuinely valid, has a much harder task communicating his message. The perceived ‘personal flaws’ of a messenger will work against the message similarly. So, if you’re a messenger who revels in the classic (and clichéd) role of writer that includes heavy partying, it’s not a stretch to imagine that that the many folks you criticize, who are also wont to take affectedly outraged moral umbrage at any and all partying, will excuse away your critique of their irrational beliefs.

    And then there’s the elephant-in-the-room noted by ambiguity at 10:44 AM:

    …if faith is “believing the most stuff with the least evidence…” doesn’t this describe some of Hitchens’ political positions, for instance his support of Bush and the Iraq war? Hasn’t this kind of blind faith been a malignant influence on current foreign policy?

    Yeah. I’m with ambiguity. It makes Hitchens an easy-to-discredit target for those who might want to simply dismiss his anti-religion activism. I worry, along with Potter, that Hitchens’s entry into this fray over ancient myth will more polarize the disputants than help to illuminate the issues. Spewing contempt and scorn might help to sell books (his book’s first run seems to have already sold out), but how can one’s resort to such tone accomplish anything more than to harden the disputants’ already mutually distrustful positions? Ugh.

    Manning, I love your five questions, especially no.s 3 & 4.

    Everyone else: this is a fine thread already. Many thanks from this grateful reader.

  • roseinpants

    “Not for Hitchens the aesthetic and existential subtleties of — from the other end of the reading table — Marilynne Robinson’s piece on The Library of America’s American Religious Poems.”

    I agree with plaintext that Robinson and Hitchens are not opposites–I would say not even as far apart as a very small table. I found the above quoted segue very jarring, as I had just heard Sam Tanenhaus (editor, NY Times Book Review) ask Hitchens about the very issue in the last (5/11) edition of that publication’s podcast. Hitchens said that

    “…without being able to go and sit at the back of some Saxon church and listen to Evensong I would feel very much culturally deprived, or without the poetry, say, of George Herbert or, of course, John Milton.”

    He goes on to talk about devotional music, art, and architecture, and says that a cultural landscape without these things would be “completely empty.” He ends by saying that he’s not advocating the abolishment of religion, but its domestication, that religion needs “to be made part of our culture and to understand its limitations.”

    The interview is well worth listening to–can be found at the Book Review home page or in iTunes.

  • lucia

    The other day on Charlie Rose Hitchens was asked about his friendship with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. He mentioned that he thought the difference between fiction writers and nonfiction writers was appreciation of music; Amis and McEwan had an appreciation while Hitchens himself did not. He didn’t elaborate any more than that and I wonder if it might figure in to this discussion.

  • funkyj

    I heard Hitchens recently on ‘On Point’ (another fine show). While I agree with some of the fundamental points he makes I am not convinced his rude approach is the best means to his end.

    Perhaps after seeing the success of Falwell and other demagogues has suggested to him that he should use the same tactics to further his agenda.

    Christopher, I hope that you also ask Hitchens about his foreign policy views. Especially Iraq. His entry on Wikipedia (need we continue to say ‘caveat emptor’ every time we reference Wikipedia or has it finally become understood?) says that he is pro Iraq invasion. Given that I am against neo-imperialist policies I find that view of his off putting. I seriously doubt he can convert me to the view that invading Iraq was the right thing to do (“if the occupation had not been bungled blah blah blah”) but I would love to hear his best sales pitch on the subject.

    If you can get him onto the topic of Iraq please ask him to address the role of recent (e.g. the last 100 years) British, French and American imperialism in the region. In particular the USA’s preference for friendly despotic regimes (the current saudi government, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran) over popular but unfriendly to the US regimes.

  • funkyj

    P.S. it sure would be nice to preview my post before submitting it. that might allow folks like me to weed out more typos and wordos.

  • Sutter wrote at 3:39 pm:

    If we acknowledge (as Eagleton and many others do) that we can’t rely on faith to answer concrete questions about our physical world and rely on God principally for internal reasons – how belief in God makes us feel or act – then belief can be a matter of choice, and there might be a value in choosing a story we believe or even KNOW to be false, simply because – if we can effectuate the self-deception – it will make us feel better than the alternative.

    I’d like to know Sutter how you can separate our feeling and acting from the physical world? Are we not very much a part of existence, even for our short life, and during it do not our feelings and beliefs prompt us to behave and act in ways that alter our physical world, sometimes with lasting effects? While I think memory and other human limitations mean we are always living in and through the stories we tell, I can’t see how knowingly believing in a false story has value when the result usually does not just end with one person feeling better.

  • Sutter


    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that one’s choice to believe or not would have no manifestation in the physical world. It presumably will. But again, the kind of belief I’m talking about (not, I suspect, the kind Hitchens is criticizing) is not connected with particular accounts of what happened thousands of years ago, nor is it connected with normative accounts of what God does or does not want us to be doing. So, the kind of faith I can stand behind (and indeed the only kind I can really stand behind, being of the belief that God may exist but that no particular organized religion has the inside track on the details) is a generic, denatured faith in higher meaning, connectedness, communion, and wonder. That kind of faith — whether genuine or synthetic — can be a comfort, and can promote reflection and deliberation, but it cannot form the basis for Sharia or a crusade or witchhunts or pogroms or the like. It’s a weak faith, and I suspect those more theological than I to resist it. But my suggestion is that Eagleton et al. have defended belief from the empiricists by diluting it to this degree, and that once it is so diluted, it’s the kind of faith that no longer really relies on a belief in God.

    Ultimately, I’m suggesting that faith is in a bind: To adopt the “strong faith” position, one must engage the empiricist arguments, and cannot simply reply that the religion is beyond scientific argument. One CAN evade this argument by adopting the “weak faith” position (it’s not the reality, stupid), but once you go there, you’ve essentialy acknowledged (I claim) that God is irrelevant, because the things religion is said to do for you are no longer linked to specific descriptive or prescriptive accounts of reality.

  • My own point of view is much closer to Marilynne Robinson’s than Christopher Hitchens but in answer to the question “Why now?” I think the answer is painfully obvious. We have a born again Christian President taking our country straight to Hell and a Christian fundamentalist base who elected him… twice (or at least got him close enough to steal his elections with impunity). And what important issue won him that last election? The war? The economy? noooo, fear of gay marriage! Worse yet this stupid bigotry was called a “moral issue”. Currently we have people running for president who do not believe in evolution or women’s rights. Not to overlook Child raping Catholic priests, violent Islamic fundamentalists and totalitarian Israelis none of whom speak well of their respective religions either. Its no wonder religion has gained a reputation as stupid and loathsome.

    I would argue though, that it isn’t religion, but self-righteousness, intolerance and bigotry that are the problems and that although bigots like to cloak themselves in religion, atheists can be just as stupid, self-righteousness and intolerant as anyone else.

  • chilton1

    Peggysue…atheists can be just as stupid, self-righteousness and intolerant as anyone else….

    true true….but a key difference – an atheist can’t fall back on divine inspiration and can always be held accountable

  • Sutter, thanks for taking the time to explain further. Your soft faith is obviously different from what I was first imagining. It is hard to toss off the weight of history and all the signification around the idea of god.

    I also have a great sense of wonder and awe about our world, though I tend to find comfort in the experience of it without attributing this to an unexplainable “force” or “essence” (I am having trouble finding an appropriate word: hmm…god??). Many scientific explanations, though they are not complete, provide enough insight that I don’t think I need the faith you mention (of course, you could say I have a similar faith in reasoned inquiry).

    I can see how your faith can provide comfort, but can you explain how it promotes reflection and deliberation? Since it is faith, it would seem to deny the need for these acts of reasoning?

  • Nick

    chilton got to it before me, but still (while taking a break from Lazare)…

    Peggy Sue:

    It’s no wonder religion has gained a reputation as stupid and loathsome.

    I would argue though, that it isn’t religion, but self-righteousness, intolerance and bigotry that are the problems and that although bigots like to cloak themselves in religion, atheists can be just as stupid, self-righteousness and intolerant as anyone else.

    Sure: anyone taking the position that ‘God doesn’t exist’ is displaying a conceit too. For example, try disproving the existence of Russell’s Teapot or the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

    But atheist conceit, it seems to me, is a finely-ground mirrored reflection of theist conceit. Look, I value and trust the humanism of many Christians (notably our own Mr. Lydon); but I sense, even from the Christians I trust, that they do not understand how their expectation that their faith, its constituent beliefs, and its larger, systematized religion, affords anti-humanist fundamentalists the cover they require for their “intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry” (to paraphrase you) to flourish as “religious expression” — and therefore to remain beyond meaningful restraints.

    If you say, “You can’t hold my beliefs up to the light of empirical scrutiny, because they are religion”, you are invoking a cultural-conventional protection for all the cocksure conceits and bigotries of fundamentalists—even those you despise and would excommunicate from your faith, if you could.

    What’s the point of excoriating Bush for all his faith-based beliefs in American exceptionalism and in Old-Testament style hierarchy worship (like the ‘unitary executive’ quasi-authoritariansim) with your right hand if your left hand is simultaneously enabling the very concepts you strive to expose and debunk?

    Belief itself is the real problem – whether it’s belief in ‘God’, or belief that ‘God doesn’t exist’. Even Hitchens has an implicit handle on this:

    And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically…


    Even so, I’m not at all sure Hitchens would ever be my first pick to champion my own anti-faith activism…

  • Nick

    A belated (and needed) EDIT to my post above:

    Look, I value and trust the humanism of many Christians (notably our own Mr. Lydon). But I sense, even from the Christians I trust, that they do not understand how their expectation that their faith, its constituent beliefs, and its larger, systematized religion, deserves an exemption from criticism affords in turn anti-humanist fundamentalists the cover they require for their “intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry” (to paraphrase you, Peggy Sue). This enables those deplorable conceits to flourish under the umbrella of “religious expression” — and therefore to persist well beyond the reach of any meaningful restraints.

    It’s late…

  • BerkeleyGuy

    FYI, Christopher Hitchens along with Ralph Reed participate in a debate on the legacy of the Reverend Jerry Falwell. This was recorded from the Hannity and Colmes show of 16-May-2007.


  • enhabit

    posted these elsewhere @ ros but still relevant and interesting to compare dawkins and hitchens…a lot of what he says makes complete sense to me.



    like nick..i think that gould had it right..in the absence of verifiable facts, atheism is like a counter-belief….skepticism or agnosticism is more real. i’ll repeat the gould quote..

    “To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists. If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs. McInerney and have their knuckles rapped for it (as long as she can equally treat those members of our crowd who have argued that Darwinism must be God’s method of action). Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example).”

    stephen j gould

    (btw nick..i use dsl, it’s over the phone line, lightening fast over dial-up and really quite affordable..you can talk on the phone and be on-line simultaneously also)

  • Potter

    Roseinpants on Hitchens- ( and thanks for the pointer to the NYT podcast)

    He goes on to talk about devotional music, art, and architecture, and says that a cultural landscape without these things would be “completely empty.” He ends by saying that he’s not advocating the abolishment of religion, but its domestication, that religion needs “to be made part of our culture and to understand its limitations.”

    Hitchens repeats this on the “On Point” regarding Spencer and Donne (if I remember correctly). Let’s clarify the differences- atheists, non-theists, anti-theists are individuals and are not all saying the same things exactly.

    Nick– I depart with you regarding belief itself. I don’t see how anyone can be anti-belief any more than they can be anti the sun or for that matter anti-evolution after all the evidence. How can belief can be eradicated even if we somehow knew for sure it would create a better world with such a strong root? The ability and/or need to believe grew or evolved in us or is “hard-wired” into us, bound up in us, along with imagination, artistic imagination. We here mention the arts along with religion. This is amazing stuff coming from the mind of man along with all the rest!

    Gottleib in his New Yorker piece “Atheists with Attitude” linked in Chris Lydon’s essay above:

    The tangled diversity of faith is, in the event, no obstacle for Hitchens. He knows exactly which varieties of religion need attacking; namely, the whole lot. And if he has left anyone out he would probably like to hear about it so that he can rectify the omission. From the perspective of the new atheists, religion is all one entity; those who would apologize for any of its forms—Harris and Dawkins, in particular, insist on this point—are helping to sustain the whole. But, though the vague belief in a “life force” may be misguided, it’s hard to make the case that it’s dangerous. And there’s a dreamy incoherence in their conviction that moderate forms of religion somehow enable fundamentalist zeal and violence to survive. Are we really going to tame the fervor of an extremist imam’s mosque in Waziristan by weakening the plush-toy creed of a nondenominational church in Chappaqua? If there were no religion, it’s true, neither house of worship would exist. So perhaps we are just being asked to sway along with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (“Imagine there’s no countries /It isn’t hard to do /Nothing to kill or die for /And no religion too.”)

    Note that according to Gottlieb, Hitchens says all religions need attacking- ie- “domestication”,adjustment, not eradication. The end sentence about Lennon reminds me that I have, in disgust, felt that way too. But I think there are many, very many, who need the anchor that belief/religion provides, not to hide behind to commit awful acts, but to go on, to maintain their sanity,equilibrium through life, to value life, to contribute wonderful things to this world. I would not wish that away. I would wish away all the stupidity, self-righteousness, cruelty and intolerance.

  • Richard Kearney would be a great guest to have on. I believe he even lives in Boston.


    Here is a review of his book, “The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion”


    I listened to a three part lecture series on CBC’s The Best Of Ideas last fall and found his ideas very engaging, and this from a deep skeptic of godly notions.

    You can listen or download that series here:


  • silvio.rabioso

    Wow, what a great thread! I especially like the ‘weak faith’ idea…it seems to me that ‘weak faith’ is the very gift the Enlightenment gave Western society. As I argued on the Mary’s Notes that proceeded this thread, it is the idea of ‘weak faith’ (and the overall non-importance) of the god issues that allows modern Western science to take the great steps it has.

    I read Lazare and Gottleib’s respective reviews of the ‘neo-atheists.’ I think Lazare makes a fundamental critique: these accounts are all ahistorical. Hitchen’s attempts to formulate a ‘religion’s worst hits’ list ignores the many positive elements that the several religions have contributed to world culture (as Gottleib points out). Gottleib’s essay does attempt to historicize Western atheism, but for some reason Gottleib passes over Kant and the key moments of the end of the Enlightenment. For Western science/reason to bring a critique against UNIVERSAL religion, Western reason must first critique itself. This was Kant’s unfinished project. In our contemporary moment, we are much more open to subaltern knowledges (different ways of knowing the world). Western science/reason could also use some of that humbleness Nick proposes for religion (a proposal I fully support, by the way). Last time I checked, the Theory of Everything (the ‘holy grail’ of science…even scientists cannot escape the language of Christianity) was postulating that 60%-90% of the so-called ‘known universe’ is actually composed of a combination of dark matter and dark energy. That’s a lot of uncertainty.

    So the combination of Western reason/science a) remaining undecided (for the moment at least) on the composition of the vast majority of the universe and b) closing itself to any non-Western knowledges, leads me to say that rhetorically violent assertions of non-belief on the part of Western reason/science cause more problems than they solve.

  • silvio.rabioso

    [I just read ambiguity’s post on the same topic. Consider this a seconding of the motion to raise the question]

    Beyond my plea for a reconsideration of Western metaphysics, I think I have a question that Hitchens might actually respond to. Couldn’t the disdain Hitchens showers upon believers (believing the MOST incredible thing with the LEAST amount of evidence) also be directed towards the ‘priests’ of free-market capitalism? Can’t we just come out and say that free-market capitalism IS a religion, complete with its greater (Adam Smith) and lesser (Ronald Reagan) saints? Talk about belief against all odds and evidence: as the US Congress begins to renegotiate a trade deal, how can people ignore the horrible global effects of NAFTA? How can ‘believers’ remain blind to the abundant global poverty, weakening of labour unions, horrible global working conditions etc.?

    But even on the level of the basic mythology: an “invisible hand”? A belief that one fundamental element governs humanity (either self-preservation or, in more vulgar varieties, greed)? An unshakeable belief that “opening markets” (de facto conversion) will lead to an earthly paradise?

  • Potter

    I just watched a bunch of YouTubes with Hitchens and I recommend 2 below of the bunch. Hitchens has allowed a bit of a circus around him. I know ROS will do much better.

    My notes of what Hitchens says:

    religion is innately irrational

    that he is not a conservative “no kind of conservative” and appears not to be uncritical of Bush. Hitchens is or was convinced that Saddam harbored terrorists and this justified the war. He criticizes Christian churches for being on the whole against the war. OTOH he criticizes the US for supporting the Saudi’s and Israeli settlers and extreme Christians here in this country.

    His debating partner in many of these youtubes, Andrew Sullivan, says ( rightfully I think) that the issue is the fusion of faith with political power.

    Hitchens says that he is convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion. Then he asks “How are we going to stop religion?”

    My not well formed here question to Hitchens would be -if he could or could have stopped religion ( from it’s inception) somehow, would he ( have)? The answer would indicate whether he thought that on balance we are much worse off with religion than without it. Does he think that intolerance, hatred and all the rest could have been prevented by not having religion? or would all those presumably decidely negative aspects of humanity have found another seed to form around?

    Here is the YouTube of Hitchens on religion:


    Hitchens on Islam:


  • Sutter

    I plan to respond to Sidewalker soon, but first I wanted to suggest one question for Hitchens. Hitchens and I might well agree on the theological question. But one defining characteristic of Hitchens’s career has been anti-totalitarianism. For example, that is (rightly or wrongly) the basis for his support of the war on terror. Given that Hitchens comes to the religion question from the perspective of politcs (rather than zoology or evolutionary biology or philosophy, a la Gould, Dawkins and Dennett), I wonder what he has to say about the role that religious belief has played in resisting totalitarianism? That is, does he deny that faith played a role in overcoming the yoke of communism in the Eastern Bloc, or that spiritual resources provide a bulwark against the “total” control of the state that distinguishes totalitarianism from “mere” authoritarianism? Or is his claim simply that the harm it has done outweighs these credits on the religion ledger?

  • hurley

    Sutter and silvio.rabioso pose interesting questions — no such thing as a free market, no matter that the world is being throttled by that cartoonish abstraction, the invisible hand. Sutter right to point to the role of “faith” i.e. the Catholic Church in the decline of the Soviet Union — though what that role actually was has yet to be settled. Whatever it was to its defenders, it has to be set alongside the Church’s stand on the use of contraception in the fight against AIDS: JPII and his minions have the blood of millions on their hands. More to the point of Sutter’s comment, one of the admirable movements in contemporary Catholic praxis is/was liberation theology, which Ratzinger recently went to Brazil to condemn, managing along the way to dismiss the European genocide in the Americas

  • Dora

    A couple of questions for Hitchens from a fellow non-believer.

    1) I heard him say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the Bible asks us to admire a God who would demand that a man sacrifice his son. But does the Bible really ask that, or are we the ones deciding that it is asking that? I believe Genesis is one of the books authored by “J.” Harold Bloom, for one, famously saw J as a bit subversive, and even went so far as to suggest that J is a woman since he sees the J parts of the Bible as dismissive of patriarchal authority. When I read the passage about the would-be sacrifice of Isaac, I always think that we’re supposed to be troubled by this perverse deity, not admiring of him. As I said, I don’t believe in God, but I always admired the Hebrew Bible for the ways in which it often invites us to disbelieve, invites a constant re-examination of our thoughts and attitudes about morality and God. I ask all of this because I believe Hitchens has said that George Eliot is a better moral guide than the Bible. An who can argue with any admirer of George Eliot? Still, I wonder whether the Bible has something offer us as a work of literature. Perhaps the problem isn’t the Bible but the way we read it. I have always thought that in the pre-modern period, before the invention of modern notions of historiography, people did think about the Bible the way we think about literature–that is, something that provoked thought, not something to be followed uncritically. I always see in the modern arguments about the Creation story the influence of the Enlightenment and modern science. The people who are so dogmatic about the idea that the earth was created in 6 six days are, in a way, the people who are thinking the most “scientifically”–that is, they need to decide whether a story is true or false as if it were a newspaper article. I don’t think Ancient Israelites would have much trouble viewing the story as a metaphor because they knew nothing of modern science or historiography, and because they probably knew that the Bible’s version of creation was just a re-worked Babylonian creation myth.

    2) My second question is just about whether it’s really fair to call Muhammed an illiterate plagiarist. Is it? In a sense he was both, but I also think that in his time and place not being able to write was much like not being able to program a computer–that is, it was a specialized technology that scribes used, but was perhaps not so useful to ordinary people, who might not have cultivated the skill. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t intellectually sophisticated. Also, as I mentioned above, the reworking of the myths of other people can seen as a literary exercise (as is the case with the creation story in the Hebrew Bible). I think it’s not quite right to impose modern ideas of authorship on people of Muhammed’s time. The idea that one doesn’t appropriate or re-work other people’s ideas is an entirely modern literary concept. I have always thought that Muhammed appropriated old myths because he wanted to co-opt them and channel their power into his new religion, not because he was too unimaginative to come up with his own. Anyway, Muhammed is more sophisticated and creative than the phrase “illiterate plagiarist” suggests.

  • hurley

    Hit the wrong button-

    Can Hitchen’s realistically imagine organized religion as a force for good? To the improbable idea of a Pope endorsing the use of birth control, environmental awareness, etc? The Dalai Lama, whose immortality he liikely settled by describing him as a “Hindu stooge,” has occassionally made vague gestures in the right directions. There are recent historical examples of religious figures who have done undeniably great things– Gandhi, MLK — but does he see anyone on the religio-political horizon who might yet do something worthwhile on a grand scale? I don’t, but I’d be happy to know about them if they’re out there.

  • hurley

    Pardon last post — all thumbs.

  • enhabit

    this topic has real potency. 911 seems to have tripped a semi-latent late reformation switch and patience with religious thought is fading or gone in certain quarters.

    is a polarity forming with little or no middle ground? have battle lines al;ready been drawn?

  • mr.dana

    I have heard Mr. Hitchens on some programs promoting his new book and yet I have not heard his thoughts on Spinoza. From what I have gathered, much of the foundation of his thought in this work is basically Spinozism. If this is the case, why not openly market the book as a reinterpretation of Spinozism for the current political reality. Forgive me if the book actually states those goals as I live in Israel where the book has yet to be published. Considering that Radio Open Source is one of the few American Media outlets that has recently talked about Spinoza in a meaningful way, I am hope that we could hear Mr. Hitchens thoughts on Spinoza especially regarding miracles, superstition, political philosophy and Bush

  • Great thread!

    I caught Mr. Hitchen’s act last week on “On-Point” on BUR.. Ironically the successor to our dear lost “The Connection.” I just want to say that a lot of what he says makes a lot of sense, he’s a bright man with a very good point, but does he have to be such a jerk while making it. He seems to relish in his ability to talk down to people of faith and say they are misguided, under informed and all around idiots who’s meaning in life is, in short, without meaning.

    Anyway, I’m not one of them so he can’t cut on me for that. But I will say that religion has helped to create and perpetuate humanity as we know it, and shapes our morality, even for the non-religious of us. For example I live in a country that was officially “Godless” for about 70 years and the absence of it quickly created some rather negative effects which we can see today in this society.

    So, all I really want to say is: “don’t throw the baby Jesus out with the bath water”

  • Potter

    On Dora’s No. 1- It’s the subsequent canonization/crystallization of the Bible and it’s subsequent layers of commentary and interpretation that also have been made holy that I think is at the heart of the complaint.

    Correct me if I am wrong please anyone but one is invited to ask questions within orthodox religion ( my reference is Judiasm) but within certain boundaries and then, after, to come back to the (pre-ordained) “correct” answers. To use the Bible as a point from which to push off to a more free and personal interpretation as one can with literature, or to ask questions that a child would (as per Hitchens) by definition is already outside of religion or religious dogma and heresy or schism. I agree with the suggestion about how these stories might have been embraced originally in a much more relaxed manner though this may be wishful thinking along with a wish for more of that now.

    Hitchens mentions that we can learn as much from Shakespeare and George Eliot and I presume he picked those names carefully ( as well he mentions Spinoza) but how were they in turn influenced by religion?

  • bft

    Gandhi was a lawyer.

  • bft

    The American Quaker, author of a preeminent “Journal” or spiritual autobiography, John Woolman, was called “an illiterate tailor” by someone who greatly admired his writing (see John Greenleaf Whittier’s preface to one edition of Woolman’s Journal). The word “illiterate” is indeed a slippery one!

  • Sutter

    Sidewalker, you write, “I can see how your faith [by which I assume you mean what I’ve called “weak faith” — I’m not sure it’s mine] can provide comfort, but can you explain how it promotes reflection and deliberation?”

    This is an entirely fair question. Comfort is the easiest of the three. But I’ll stick with reflection and deliberation too. I think what I mean here is a kind of moral reasoning. Our most commonly held Western liberal ethics — utilitarianism and contract-theory deontologies — both resort in some form to a “view from eternity.” Utilitarianism askes practitioners to think of the greatest good for the greatest number, in a way that does NOT privilege the self in making moral computations. So, I should jump in front of the truck to save five others, even though I personally might prefer that I live and the others perish. Contract theory, at lease as nuanced by Rawls, asks us to envision the decisions that would be made about justice in an “original position,” again without reference to the actual contingent preferences that I have as me. I would suggest that both these modes of moral reasoning are eased by weak faith — the belief in interconnectedness and common purpose. This isn’t to say that faith is essential to morality (a debate I stayed out of here). But the diluted faith I discuss above does, for me anyway, lend itself to a sort of escape from self-interestedness, even when that faith is entirely divorced from beliefs in a particular God.

    All this said, I’m not sure where I fall. It’s either with the nonbelievers, the weak believers, or the synthetic believers. My main point above is that as among these three groups, it may well not really matter whether or not God exists.

  • Nick

    Sutter, were I healthier or less busy with all my reaction to Lazare, I’d have pointed out the following much sooner than this:

    Your ‘weak faith’ is essentially indistinguishable (to me, at least) from Daniel Dennett’s ‘belief in belief’, which he details in Breaking the Spell. You can also get a sense or sketch of it on the seventh page of this PDF file:


    Give it a gander; it begins in the paragraph commencing with:

    “I’ll just mention one more point: belief and (sic — transcription error — it should have been ‘in’) belief.”

  • Sutter

    Nick — it might well be the same. Probably depends on the God the belief in belief has in mind.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Lazare, and I hope you feel better. I’m expecting Hume on natural religion in the mail tomorrow, so maybe that’ll give me something useful to say…

  • Dora

    Correction to m earlier post. The story of Abraham is considered to be an “E” text, I believe. Still, the general point I was trying to make remains the same.

  • Groted

    Two Brief points:

    1) Belief that there is no god is as faith based as belief in god. Mr. Hitchens position is inherrently no more evidence-based than that of the faithful he disdains. Agnosticism is the more science-based position.

    2) I agree with Mr. Hitchens’ point that religion has been the root of many of the world’s problems, but it has also been the source of inspiration both for good humanitarian efforts and great contributions in the arts. Religion keeps many “in check” that otherwise might do evil. If Mr. Hitchens’ was able to end organized religion tomorrow, people would find something else to inspire their hatred and cruelty.

    3) Mr. Hitchens’ apparently does not realize religion is part of the human psyche. His own passionate belief that their is no god is one proof of this- Atheism is his religion- and he is passionate in his attacks on other religions and defense of his own.

  • Groted

    oops I guess that was 3 points.

  • Nick,

    I’d be more active on this thread if I were not attending a 3-day retreat with my spiritual teacher Lama Jetsun Kushok. In fact, I have to leave right now (but I could not resist checking this thread first). I just want to share with you the closing line from the long life prayer for my teacher… “May you gaze directly upon the face of reality and dwell always in that joy that does not fail”.

    One could also argue that science is just another Patriarchial religion.

  • Groted

    I would not agree that science is patriarchial-no more so than western culture as a whole has been. There are certainly many brilliant women in the sciences and have been from the beginning-

    I do agree there is faith within science as well- faith in the observable being truth, and the unobservable being unknown. Science is a search for truth, as is religion, and thus they are not diametrically opposed.

    Antagonistic Atheism as Mr. Hitchens’ practices seems more to be a search for publicity.

    It worksfor this, but I would question the contribution it makes to the world. Does Mr Hitchens’ believe his points will make the world a better place?

  • Sutter

    PeggySue, could you please lay out the case you suggest can be made that science is itself a patriarchal religion? I have to admit that I’m very skeptical. I have no doubt that “the scientific community,” i.e. the social institution of people practicing the sciences, can be sexist and dominated by men (paging Larry Summers…), but that , it seems to me, is a far cry from stating that “science” — the set of deductive and inductive tools that draws conclusions about our physical world based on experience, observation, and proof — is itself patriarchal or bears the hallmarks of religion. I’m curious, then, what you mean.

  • Thanks again, Sutter, for engaging my questions. I have one more. You mention two of the most commonly held Western liberal ethics, but do not include the third one, moral virtue. Why is that? Are you waiting for that book on Hume?

    I am inclined to reject modernist notions of moral virtue in favor of what Bauman calls the moral impulse. Where does this come from? I don’t have a well thought out answer but I would risk that it comes from the human vulnerabilities that push so many people in the direction of religions. Also, as social animals that require such a long nurturing period, our dependencies necessitate acting for the other. I draw here on Levinas, who talks about being for the other. This kind of relationship is not based on contracts, obligations, fear of punishment; not based on power, but rather of infinite openness to the others needs.

  • Sutter


    You’re right. I’ve always given virtue ethics short shift — probably because it had a more limited role in the field in which I was first introduced to ethical theory. You clearly know much more about virtue ethics than do I, but my initial cut would be that I might also be more inclined to self-betterment if I believe in something than if I believe in nothing (lol — I just mistyped “if I believer in nother,” which of course I do). But I’d be skeptical about the application of “weak faith” to guide anyone in the selection of which virtues in particular are to be pursued. I guess I need to go back to Aristotle and MacIntyre…

  • Potter

    Groted Does Mr Hitchens’ believe his points will make the world a better place?

    I believe his points will make the world a better place. He has to call attention. And that he has. Discussion makes the world a little better don’t you think?

    Hitchens states his main points :

    There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.

    Argue those points first. I think Hitchens has contradicted himself here and there or has seemed to. I still don’t know if he really would get rid of all religion if he could. He suggest he would settle for tolerance.

    I think we should start with his definition of religion.

    All the other comments he makes should be considered after those main points it seems to me.

  • thomas

    One answer to the question, why now is that atheistic monographs gain credibility and power when major religious or religious political figures are hypocritical (publically, visibly), rationalizing 9/11 attacks as caused by homosexual sin or justifying war and murder on the blessing of their god. Just as David Halberstam said, journalists become more powerful when the government is lying.

    Hitchens, at least his talk show persona (bombastic, defiant, stubborn, vulgar, flipping off the audience) reminds me of the friend of mine in college (a christian school) who crafted a lewd vulgar persona–flaunting his collection pornography, cheating on tests to defy the honor code and cursing wildly in all settings. As seen from my perspective, he had created this public self as a means to shock the lily sorority/fraternity crowd in their absurdity, their hipocrisy, and the way in which they poisoned life for my friend.

    In a similar way, Hitchens, while I hope not to characterize him as vulgar, has created a dagger of a diatribe, meant to equal in disrespect, harshness, and shock what religion as disgraced by its practitioners should be practicing in humility, tolerance, and love. He is certainly uproarishly disrespectful to the religious person, basically calling them ignorant, and in such a overwrought manner that one must question his motivations. But an inquiry into personal motivations is a digression.

    Why now? Maybe 9/11, Bush’s Iraq war, etc. have raised the stakes to such a degree to this kind of bullying is our only shot at reconciliation and recognition of our interdependence on each other as a human community.

    But that doesn’t REALLY speak to why now. Now is always the time to reconsider the evil within human nature and its manifestation through institutions. Religious systems–like political, social systems; hell all human relationships!–carry inherent to them a poison, which begs confrontation, now.

    Thank God, Hitchens has taken up the challenge.

    But, certainly religion, as M. Robinson’s work continually reminds us, is not all poisonous to EVERYTHING. Certainly, religion helps us. Unhampered by religion, we have the heroic poetry and prose of Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, the visions of Martin Luther King and others. There is nothing less poisonous than the notion that we should love ourselves, and love our neighbor as ourself. The poison lies in our inability to reduce this simple truth. We are probably most poisonous in our reduction of the first truth: Love yourself. I certainly beat up on myself daily. The twentieth century went a long way in proving our hedonism and hatred. But the notion of God must be kept alive, defined as Love. Maybe it is religion that hinders this truth. Maybe that’s what Bonhoeffer meant by a religionless Chrisitianity.

    But I digress again. Surely, Hitchens wasn’t motivated, now, by a marketplace which has deemed lucrative this type of harsh unheroic heralding of hate aimed at our transcendent heart.

  • Don’t blame Christianity for GW Bush’s behavior, imagine what he’s be like if he wasn’t a Christian? He was by anyone’s measure, even his own, an immoral person before his being born the second time. Does he have it wrong? Yes, but you can’t blame Jesus for that.

    Mr. Hitchens also recently refered to the Reverend Al Sharpton as a thug in a suit. Well, welcome to America, we’re a nation of thugs, from the top down, he should have noticed that before he signed up. Americans admire thug-dom, and it’s common to have a “thug” rise to be an important, influencial person.

  • x2ferry

    I think none of the “Atheists with Attitude” has sufficiently addressed how and why it is logical to apply causation to religion’s supposed balefule effects–inquisitions and the like–but to write off any associated beneficial if not heroical effects–such as Abolitionism, Anti-Apartheid, or Civil Rights. Did religion “poison” MLK or Bishop Tutu?

    In his book, Hitchens writes that Bonhoeffer’s theology was merely an atavistic ethical porridge (an “admirable but nebulous humanism”). This conveniently buttresses Hitchens’ notion that religion has nothing positive left to say (though maybe “saying” is besides the point). But what is his data for this? Perhaps Bonhoeffer would have gone to the gallows as an atheist, perhaps not. It’s difficult to establish.

    Like Harris and Dawkins, Hitchens defends the noble (sacred?) ground of reason and science against assault by “faith” by using the most unrigorous standards of evidence one can imagine. Religion is not some consistent, predictable and quantifiable element, like mercury or polyvinyl chloride, that can be isolated in an experiemental study. It is variegated, everchanging, and ineradicably pervasive. We all have a metaphysics, whether or not there is a deity at the top of the flow chart. (Or the bottom). An intelligent, educated man like Hitchens knows, or should know, that there is no single correct world picture suggested by the tangible universe; and to suggest that some people have got it right, others wrong, and moreover that it’s all very simple, is an insult to our entire civlization.

  • Nick

    My preliminary reaction to Lazare is here: Response to Daniel Lazare’s atheism book review – Part 1: “A solipsism as big as all existence”

    It’s not short, but I request that anyone who has responded to my posts thus far or intend to respond to my forthcoming posts read it first. It addresses the essence of Peggy Sue’s

    “May you gaze directly upon the face of reality and dwell always in that joy that does not fail.”

    It also cites orlox and Manning, and touches on many other issues this thread’s writers have brought up here. I want to respond to several points made recently on this thread, but I’m absolutely screwed for time until later this evening. Thanks though to one and all…

  • katemcshane

    My first thought when I saw the subject of this show was that Hitchens is sophomoric and not worth my time, (which is a nicer way of putting what went through my mind). The idea that he criticizes religion for being “contemptuous of women” is rich. I’ve walked out on him more than once when he was ranting against women who have abortions. Also, his writing style does nothing for me — it’s not worth the energy it takes for me to get through five of his sentences. Nothing he writes is so original that I cannot easily find a better writer who deals with the same subject. Marilynne Robinson’s work should not even have to share space with Hitchens’ work. At my last job, a bookstore, all the little boys loved Hitchens. They routinely dismissed someone like Robinson without investigation, and idolized Hitchens because he could insult Mother Teresa. Who cares?

    I’m not a fan of organized religion. Certainly much of what he says is true, probably most. But, for me, when someone conflates God and religion, there is so much that he knows nothing about that I wouldn’t trouble myself with him. Perhaps he believes that anything that cannot be explained rationally has no value or does not exist. Fine. Move back to the 17th century and you’ll be right at home.

  • hurley

    Apologies if someone else has pointed this out, but “believing the most stuff with the least evidence…” sounds rather like Iraq and WMD, no? Another credulous skeptic.

  • Sutter

    Hurley, you’re even more on point here than you might realize: W/r/t God, the absence of evidence fuels the piety of those who put stock in faith; the more evidence, the less faith is required, and the less impressive the belief. W/r/t the WMDs, you will recall that the administration argued in 2002/2003 that the very absence of evidence on WMDs proved just how nefarious Saddam was. Indeed, the absence of evidence (the admin. argued) PROVED that he was HIDING them, and thus needed to be stopped!

  • Sutter

    I’ve been looking for a way to fit this in, and I think Nick’s essay (which I’m still digesting) may have given me the opportunity I wanted. From Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” an entry from the Books of Bokonon. Religion in a nutshell…

    Tiger got to hunt,

    Bird got to fly;

    Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”

    Tiger got to sleep,

    Bird got to land;

    Man got to tell himself he understand.

  • hurley

    Sutter: I knew what I meant – the double standard long evident. You state it well. Once upon a time Hitchens would have been alert to it. The”bloody crossroads” was Lionel Trilling’s phrase for the intersection of literature and politics — Hitchens wrote an essay on it — but now the bloody crossroads yet again where religion and politics traverse. H applies one rational standard to religion, and another to politics, and Iraq marks the bloody spot where they cross.

  • Potter

    Nick– thank you for your essay. I have some reaction/criticism and need to think but I appreciate ( as always) your thoughts but more than that the spirit behind it.

    Your most important line ( for me) is something that I know and try to live by everyday- the “us” including more and more as I go on:

    Each of us is the universe’s center: none of us are more important than any other.

    I think this is an amazing thread ( again) and I thank everyone. I love x2ferry‘s post and thomas‘s post just above.

  • orlox

    A great thread with great links and great comments. I really love you guys!

    Unfortunately, that love IS reducible.

    The most persistent justification that materialism is insufficient is that it seems insufficient. Given materialism’s unrivaled success, one might expect the focus to fall on ‘seems’ rather than ‘insufficient’ but we are an ungrateful lot.

    Love is not reducible to material facts. Seemingly.

    I could provide you every nuanced fact and detail related to my beloved but that would not necessarily cause you to love her. And if you did, that love would not be the same as mine. Even if love is dependent on those material facts, it is not reducible to them. The same argument is offered for faith.

    Yet love and faith are central to being human. They are profoundly causal. So materialism is insufficient to explain causation, to explain faith, to explain love.

    God is love. God is causation. He is both transcendent and immanent: Beyond observation but plainly obvious.

    Or so it seems.

    Essentially the same argument has also been made by some philosophers of consciousness such as Chalmers (hi jazzman!). Why stop at love, faith and causation? All of human experience is not reducible to the material facts. There is something about the redness of red, the experience of redness, which cannot be reduced to the material stimulus of the real world and the neurological components of visualization. Qualia, as it were. Life is beautiful.

    Chalmers calls for an “extra ingredient” as do the better theologians. For Chalmers consciousness and experience are extra, not reducible to material and therefore fundamental. For theologians god, love and faith are extra, not reducible to material and therefore fundamental. You can add your own fundamental extra ingredient to the universe! Materialism, after all, can explain red but not the redness of red.

    The first thing that needs to be parsed is the difference between ‘not reducible to’ and ‘irreducible’.

    Irreducible is an adjective. It requires that there be something remaining that can no longer be simplified. In this way, we discover the fundamental.

    ‘Not reducible to’ is a much more slippery construction but it does not equal ‘irreducible’ nor does it identify the fundamental.

    Love, consciousness and experience are reducible. Leaving aside what they can or cannot be reduced to, it is plain that each can be reduced. They are complex phenomena, each with easily identified components. That which is fundamental, in an empirical sense, does not have components, by definition.

    The supposedly fundamental nature of these things springs from the idea that each is more than the sum of its components. So in a grand feat of supposition it is concluded that if we could strip away the material substance there would be something left fundamental to the phenomena that was non-material.

    The materialists and non-materialists make the same mistake here in thinking that substance alone is a tenable analytical concept. Substance is not sensible when divorced from process. Even if we can imagine something standing outside of time, we cannot sensibly imagine how that might be accomplished. And that is certainly not how we discover the universe to be.

    We regard a universe in process. We are embedded in time, in process, and there is no sensible way to imagine ourselves, or the universe, otherwise. We once thought of space and time as separable concepts but have come to understand there is only spacetime. Still, the old division is lively in our analytical concepts. Much like we still think of the sun rising and setting even though we know that it does no such thing.

    In viewing love, consciousness and experience as process (or substance in process if you prefer) rather than substance (alone), we can see that whatever is ‘extra’ is higher-level phenomena not fundamental. What is lacking is not a non-material ingredient but a better explanation of how these higher-level phenomenon emerge from lower level processes. That love is made, consciousness arises and experience is had, is not debated, even by Chalmers.

    If the non-problematic material universe cannot be sensibly thought of as merely substance, then an “extra ingredient” that is somehow non-material is doubly nonsensical. Instead of correcting materialism’s conceptual error, it is compounded.

  • Groted said “I would not agree that science is patriarchial-no more so than western culture as a whole has been.”

    I rest my case.

    (yes, there are brilliant female scientists but look at who gets the grants, tenure, the credit ect.)

  • W.M. Palmer

    An interesting question is why are these frontal and broad attacks on religion coming at this time. Part of the explanation likely arises from the facially dangerous nature of radical Islam. However, the more interesting part may well come from two accelerating and increasingly apparent trends: the power of the concept of evolution to explain (and, indeed predict) in detail all aspects of the extant and preserved biological world – the second being the fact that that world is increasingly subject to precise manipulation through our technological tools arising from a combination of molecular biology, bioinformatics, etc. If man can understand life and manipulate it, that leaves scant room for any god except as an object of devotional practice and contemplation.

    Evolution poses multiple and manifest challenges to the concept of god. One that strikes me is as follows: if human beings are not a natural kind, but simply a moment in the progression of a life form, from LUCA to the fish who climbed out of the ocean to live on the seaside muck tens of millions of years ago, to our more recent ancestors, why should there be a god singularly devoted to us – as opposed to those forms of life that preceded and gave rise to us . . ..

  • Sutter,

    As for science being a religion – it may be streatching the definition of religion I admit but science has its holy texts and rituals and maybe even a few saints.

  • Seattle

    quoting from Potter’s post:

    “There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”

    To pull a few words from Hitchens’ statement: I wonder how much Hitchens feels his cheerleading for the Iraq war was based on “wish-thinking”. The alternatives, I guess, would be willfull “misrepresentation” of the facts and “servility” to those in power in Washington. Incidentally, one of the definitions of “solipsism” is “egoistic self-absorption”. Funny that Hitchens should be leveling that charge.

    I share Hitchens’ disdain for religion, but feel that there’s no reason to give this clown a platform after his disgraceful behavior vis a vis the war.

  • Sutter

    True, peggysue, but the texts and rituals and saints are subject to repudiation when a better idea, practice, or practitioner comes along. So, if science is a religion, it’s a religion without (or with a much more muted form of) the orthodoxy and dogma that make religion so troubling to people like me. If organized religions had built-in mechanisms for reform and reevaluation, I’d be more comfortable with them.

    (Resisting the temptation to paste the lyrics to Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” here…)

  • x2ferry


    It sounds like you’re judging science by the promotional pamphlet, and religion by the customer satisfaction survey. Scientific theories are subject to overthrow and repudiation, but often demonstrate a stubborn resistance to new or heterodox hypotheses, for a host of reasons. Ptolemy was doing “good science” when he kept adapting his models based on new observations; likewise it wasn’t any “anti-science” campaign that kept notions like phlogiston and ether in vogue long after thier time. Humans get invested, financially, emotionally, intellectually. Einstein spent his entire career fruitlessly searching for something he had no solid reason to believe existed–the Grand Unified Field theory. In what sense is this not religious? Not to knock Einstein. It’s just that too many scientists seem to believe thier own PR. Science is just a method, not an infallable Truth-diviner.

    Likewise, religion is hardly rutted in the mud. There may be plenty of bronze age superstition still going around, but these conceptions too are subject to cross-pollination, revision, and even repudiation. Compare 15th C. orthodox catholicism to, say, 21st century unitarianism; both use the same scripture, yet somehow the mechanisms existed for “reform and reevaluation.”

    Science and religion are both aspects of culture, and culture never stands still.

  • Sir Otto

    Francis S. Collins’s book “The Language of God”. Collins, a very famous geneticist and a devout believer. Collins served in the Clinton administration as head of the Human Genome Project.

  • godzilla

    Hitchens is a good atheist, but a pariah as a cultural critic. How a program like open sores can give its soap box to a ‘critic’ who could have been so wrong about Iraq is a mystery. Only the second time I’ve been motivated to write, Hitchens should be assigned to the dust bin of poor reasoners who make dumb and dangerous pronouncements that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. May he take his well placed erudite disbelief and retire to the hole in which he belongs.

  • bousquet

    I’m listening to the broadcast on WGBH…

    I tell students in my HS philosophy club that only when you understand someone, do you THEN earn the right to disagree with them.

    I don’t get any sense that Hitchens understands any of the myths he claims to disagree with.

    The writers such as C.S. Lewis and Pascal that he claims to appreciate were scientific in their approach to myth, and therefore invalid… and those like Augustine that Hitchen’s doesn’t appreciate spoke a mythical, poetic language that Hitchens has yet to show that he understands, in the slightest.

  • Sutter


    Your points were at the root of my cryptic “much more muted form” parenthetical, but to be honest, I think there is no case to be made that religion and science are equally dogmatic. Our major religions are founded by certain “truths” that can’t be repudiated without eviscerating the religion itself. Science is founded on an Enlightenment methodology that recognizes the prospect for radical rethought. No doubt, we become invested, and paradigms change only grudgingly. But they can change fundamentally consistent with the idea of science, whereas religions cannot or do not. Hence, the move made by people like Eagleton in the article discussed above is NOT to say “Ok, let’s rethink our story about this or that phenomenon,” but rather to say “Well, religion wasn’t really about that phenomenon anyway — it was about something that can’t be tested or assessed.”

  • Yark

    The UN inspectors on the ground knew the WMD claims were false. They were RUN OUT of Iraq by the Bushies WHO ALSO KNEW THERE WERE NO WMD, THAT’S WHY they threw out the UN inspectors.

    ~ ~ For Hitchins to claim “everybody knew” there were WMD is – – not to put too fine a point on it – – A DELIBERATE LIE, perhaps in support of his sick support of the U.S. pillaging of Iraq.

    ~ ~ The war could have been avoided if the Bushies had simply declared WHERE THE WMD WERE (since they KNEW, by their own admission) and the UN could have gone to the site of the nonexistent WMD and PROVED what Many (including our government) knew to be nonexistent.

  • Nick

    I’ve caught only the few minutes from 4:32 PM to 4:39 PM PDT, but the dialogue so far is dismal.

  • bousquet

    “Religion does not say their is a mystery; religion says there is an answer.”

    -Hitchens ~7:43pm

    Could he be misunderstanding spirituality any more severely?

  • Nick

    “Fetishising” coherence?


    What’s wrong with an expectation of coherence???

    Maybe Hitchens isn’t so wrong to call it all mumble-jumble.

    btw: Hitchens just essentially made clear that his complaint is with a certain kind of religion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revealed_religion

    It’s my complaint too. Revealed religion is hopelessly arrogant and conceited.

  • bousquet

    Prematurely labeling something or someone as “all mumble-jumble” may be the most arrogant anc conceited statement one can make.

  • Sarah Asher

    It wastill the first week of school when my six-year-old son was harassed by his school mates for not believing in God. “You’re going to go to hell” the group at his lunch table told him. His reply? “Tell it to the Easter Bunny!”

    I was amused by his response, but not by the teachers who saw no reason to intervene. Nor was I happy about what this said about the parents; these were generally polite, ‘well brought up’ kids who wouldn’t have dreamed of making racist or even sexist comments – but here in the Bible Belt athiests are fair game. It’s open season on non-believers (and, of course, homosexuals- but that goes without saying).

    What’s worse, to me, is that if a Christian performs some act of kindness, well, of course, they are “a good Christian”, hence their good behavior. If an athiest does good, the act is generally ignored, presumably because there is no religious context avalable in which to frame a response.

    Perhaps more frustrating is the assumption that everything hails back to the Bible – the entwined snakes above the pharmacy, the Hippocratic oath – you name it, it’s ‘Biblical’.

    The whole ball of ignorance was summed up for me by a friend’s husband. We were running some errands together one Christmas when J. asked me how people in other countries celebrate Christmas. “Well J. “, I said, “most of the people in other countries aren’t Christians.” He digested this for a moment, then asked “Well, how do those people celebrate Christmas?”

  • Nick

    Prematurely? No, not prematurely. Some of us critics of religion have studied it before losing patience with it. And noted its layer upon layer of evasion and internal contradiction.

  • misfit

    I agree with Hitchens that much evil can arise when people believe they know the mind of God. Many of the most evil acts in human history have been perpetuated and justified by people who think they are enacting God’s will. However, this says nothing about the validity of belief in God–only in knowing what God wants. Hitchens is clearly smart, but he was very rude to the other guest. He said he didn’t understand what the other guest was saying–so instead of making even the slightest attempt to try to understand him, he preferred to call him unctuous.

  • Nick

    bousquet, I tend to agree with misfit’s critique above. So here’s a challenge to you, to me, and to anyone else intrigued: after the podcast becomes available overnight, let’s tomorrow each offer our own translations of Eddie Glaude’s sentences that Hitchens claimed he could not understand.

    To be frank, I’m not sure I understood them either, but I might be able to if I can type them out without all the impetuous interruptions and my own offended cringing every seven or so seconds.

    Anyone game?

    If so, try not to read anyone else’s translations before typing out your own. Let’s try to do it ‘blind’.

  • Nick

    PS: consider Glaude’s “fetishising coherence” accusataion my first example of non-comprehension. It struck me as a rhetorical device every bit as devious as those emplyed by Hitchens — and it makes no sense to me either.

  • rtrco

    I wish to thank Mr. Hitchens for standing his ground. Like knocking on the door of a vacant home, more knocking is superfluous; the result is the same. Arguing faith with a person who believes is superfluous; reason isn’t home. Only faith. And faith is not a debatable concept. His counterpart’s pressing against reason with the concept of “plurality of dogma to exrcise the human experience” was simply void of meaning, and Mr. Hitchens was correct to ask what he was supposed to respond to. His response, “punching at air” seemed to work just fine.

  • cathy

    Hitchens is correct in saying that intelligent discussion about the Christian faith requires the CREEDS of the ancient tradition and that without these, what is called or who is called a “Christian” – is really irrelevant. Without the CREEDS, (i.e. – the Virgin Birth, incarnation, crucifixion (yes, it was worse than Gibson’s Passion), and the resurrection – well, so-called “Christianity” swiftly disintegrates into CHAOS — and everyone’s “interpretation” becomes equally “valid”. I agree wholeheartedly that any true Christian must hold to the basic tenets of the faith as given in direct revelation from God in His Word – Christ, in the flesh, and the written words of God in the Bible. I disagree with Hitchens wholeheartedly when he asserts that there is contradiction within the Scriptures. Balderdash!! Anyone who has seriously studied the Bible knows that it withstands the tests of internal AND external consistency. If you don’t believe me about CREED vs. CHAOS, do read Dorothy Sayers where you shall find eloquent argument on this issue.

    Sincerely, Cathy

  • housecalls50

    Mr Hitchings is clearly very articulate and intelligent. It is unfortunate that his understanding of “rational” excludes the evidence of anyone who doesn’t agree with him. So, he has all the rational evidence, and the rest of us are simply talking nonsense. I’m sure his book will be a big sensation, and that is clearly what is foremost in his mind. I congratulate him in his notoriety.

    The complexities and the ambiguities of what human beings have come to call “moral” behavior – ambiguities that much (certainly not all) religious thinking has grappled with over the years – have, quite evidently, escaped as formidable a rational thinker as Mr. Hitchings. If only the great artists over the course of history had tamed their imaginations and followed a more rational path, how much better a world we would be living in today.

    Thank you for trying to include Mr. Glaude. He to have some very measured and reasonable insights which were, unfortunately, difficult to hear while Mr. Hitchings was shouting him down.

    Sophistry is alive and well. Thank God for rational argument.

    Tim House

    Upton MA

  • Nick

    Further thoughts on the arrogance and conceit of revealed religion.

    If God’s objective was to instruct his human creations in proper living (to offer the ‘good’ berths in the hereafter, and whatnot) then ponder please these two questions:

    1. Why, when God spoke to or through the biblical prophets and/or Mohammed, did he not also create or inspire prophets to speak to or through among every other of the world’s peoples? If he was omniscient, why didn’t he realize the bloodshed that would follow his choice to limit his prophets to just a few Jews and an Arab? Was he too tired to speak to more people? Did he not love all the others, like the Americans and Asians, enough to reveal his ‘truths’ to them, too? Wouldn’t God’s select choice of prophets imply racism? Why wouldn’t he have wanted to ‘save’ all his human children, from the moment he formulated his instructions? (And why did it take him so long?)

    2. For that matter, why didn’t God reveal his instructions to EVERY PERSON alive at the time? Why couldn’t he voice his revelations in the minds of everyone?

    With those two questions fresh in your mind, ask yourself this: why should anyone roll over and accept the proposition that “God spoke to me, and I have all his plans for us in my head”?

    How, exactly, are such claims NOT hopelessly arrogant and conceited?

    If I right now made those claims to you, might you not consider me a psychopathic megalomaniac?

    If so, why should I buy the claims of today’s priests, preachers, and imams of this rationally incoherent God?

  • housecalls50

    I appologize for the ignorant misspelling of Mr. Hitchens’ name in my posting above. No excuse. Just shoddy attention to detail.

    Tim House

  • rtrco

    Pardon me for focusing on the summation, however, Mr. Hitchens’ counterpart used a combination grammatical terms, ordered in such a way as to create a concept, (either in form or relation), which conveyed a pleasant excuse for a belief, yet failed to establish a “religious” nature. Am I alone in this theft of my time?

  • Potter

    I was having a harder time with Glaude than Hitchens to tell you the truth. But then again I was prepared for Hitchens. Don’t forget Hitchens has been doing this a lot so he is practiced. Still I think Hitchen’s language and expression were clearer for me. He’s on the ball-very intelligent. So he really does not have to be sharp or insulting ( even if he feels insulted)- but I guess that’s his way. I think he’d be more effective just making his points. ( But maybe then he would get less attention.)

    I agree with Hitchen’s complaints and arguments. Again, his definition of religion is important. Glaude offered his. Hitchens seemed to be indicating that “cafeteria” or modified or watered down or personalized versions of religions are not what he is talking about. I think this is what Cathy ( above is saying). That, though, seemed to be the version that the defenders tried to articulate. Nor was a good enough case, made for the beneficial aspects of religion. By the end there was already too much adrenaline flow. It was 2 against 1-at the end – not good. It destroyed what dialogue there was, if there was.

    Christopher Hitchens semed to be talking about religion on the whole and as an outsider, a non-neutral observer, decidedly antagonistic . Chris Lydon and Eddie Glaude were talking from a more personal invested POV.

  • Mr. Hitchens would seem to believe that the world is better off from a savage attack on Iraq, which has ciot tens of thousands of lives in the last half decade, than from assorted religious excesses which have cost millions of lives across the last several millenia. What is remarkable is that he condones the former while heaping scorn on the latter.

    Hitchens wants it both ways, but we’re wise to him. He can’t condemn religious orthodoxy for not listening to reasoned arguments while simultaneously slamming the religious pluralists — represented by Eddie Glaude — as being wishy-washy pseudo-religious clowns for wanting to find the truth through ecumenical dialogs. Hitchens simply dismisses any representative of organized religion as a pawn of superstition, yet he never includes President Bush in this category. Why are so many people paying good money for a book by this sad, self-righteous creature? TSadly, because they need something to believe in.

  • Sutter

    Potter, I agree 100%. I’m not sure why, given CL’s faith, we needed Dr. Glaude, who seemed at least as glib as Hitchens. If someone can only persuade those who already believe, what’s the use? We’ve had lots of one-guest shows, and this should have been one of those.

    I’m frustrated, too, by the continuing failure to differentiate religion from spirituality. Every defense of “religion” I’ve seen here is really a defense of what I called “weak faith,” or spirituality. Is there anyone here who will defend from Hitchens the capital-T Truth of either the empirical claims or the specific ethical claims (thou shalt not X or Y or Z) made by a particular religion, qua religious claims? (I agree it’s bad to kill and steal, but what I want to hear is a defense of the distinctively religious origin of those moral precepts.) If there’s no defense of those, then I need to know why people — smart people like Christopher Lydon and many here — are willing to adhere to religions that ask for (or demand) their acquiescence in these factual or ethical claims.

  • Nick

    Sutter, I’ve often wondered what people mean by ‘spirituality’. How does it differ from religion?

    Would you define 1) religion, and then 2) spirituality for me, please?

    (To me, one is organzied and the other nebulous — but I’d like to read someone else’s definitions, since mine are more intuitive ‘senses’ and not really definitions at all.)

  • One more thing. From what I heard from him this evening, I understand Hitchens to be a classical sophist — one who knows how to win a debate by controlling its terms. He isn’t intersted in truth or just outcomes, only in proving himslef correct. He does this by denying the credentials of interlocours, by pigeonholing opponents into neat little categories of his own devising, and confusing the religious impulse with superstition. This is the mark of a knave, perhaps even a fool. Let’s leave him to stew in his own sour juices.

  • Sutter

    Nick, I’m using religion to mean an organized set of beliefs that includes but also goes beyond a mere belief in some eternal power. So, a religion includes the empirical or ethical claims that I’ve talked about ad nauseum here, but one can be spiritual — believing in a greater power — without buying into the rest. For me, the fact that the two can be distingushed is hugely important, because it puts the onus on those who adhere to RELIGION to explain either (1) why they buy into not only the spiritual aspect but also the empirical and/or ethical claims, or (2) if they don’t, why they’re not willing to dump the RELIGION and keep just the spirituality.

  • orlox

    Nick – I see no way to disagree with the declarative statement that we are the universe made conscious. The only reason we are having this discussion is because that observation has not yet been articulated in such a way to render life more deeply and succinctly meaningful than any religion.

  • Igor

    A bunch of non-believers discuss what believing is, with predictable results 🙁 Totally irrelevant, of course, just as a forum of science haters would be on science.

    OTOH, for those who blindly believe in science (or, more widely, human rationality), I would suggest contemplating the following question: Why do you think that science gives the totality of knowledge about the world? Can this be “scientifically” proven? The answer is, of course, no 🙁 Then read Mary Midgley about the claims Mr. Dawkins, etc. make.

    Don’t get me wrong, I did science (physics) professionally for 15 years and am still involved with what is the staple of rationality, i.e. computer programming. From all these experiences I know the limitations of science, those who are not doing science from day to day usually don’t. Dawkins is _not_ a scientist, he’s a cheerleader, and Hitchens, well, a popinjay, now that his Iraq adventure has collapsed, he turned to other venues. Why would anybody believe him, I don’t know…

  • Nick

    Igor: “A bunch of non-believers discuss what believing is”

    Igor, has it occurred to you that some of us – maybe most of us – began our lives as believers? Wouldn’t that experience – and our later choice to cogitate actively, restlessly, and skeptically instead of statically (“I believe it, and that settles it” / “God said it, and that settles it”) make our exchange relevant?

    Or can only believers discuss belief?

  • Igor

    > … some of us – maybe most of us – began our lives as believers…

    Well, nobody begins his life as believer, we all do it as newborns. Believing or not believing comes later, usually from families, etc.

    Again, you read me all wrong, I’m coming from the opposite direction, I was a materialist for 40 years (or I thought I was), and now I see (am sure, in fact), that there is no such thing as pure materialism or pure science for that matter…

    > Or can only believers discuss belief?

    Well, I would prefer your discussing things _you_ believe in. The we can go to what belief is, etc. Otherwise it’s just hot air, “we are good (right, smart, whatever), they are dumb” stuff, which is _not_ even science…

    The problem is, you _do_ believe in things, quite uncritically, in fact, things like “science is the answer to all problems of human condition”, etc., but since you are so hooked on “science” you cannot even discuss this, there is no language available to you to do that. Believers at least admit that they believe, so there is a hope there, and a language, of course.

  • orlox

    Igor – I tried to make not so much a defence, but hopefully a reconceptualizatioin of materialism that accounts for what I consider to be the most significant objections to it. It is a longish piece above but I would be keen to hear your response.

  • fenwizard

    It seems to me that Hitchins is arguing against the primitive neolithic view of God, the “Big Daddy in the Sky” which we in the west have inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition. This has nothing to do with who or what God is per se. Many other traditions have a different view of God. Many of us also experience “God” as the Great Mystery which is the very Ground of Being. One does not necessarily have to believe in the Big Father in the Sky god in order to have an experience of the deep mysterious God of our Being.

  • carljs27

    We clearly do not need to believe in “God” in order to be moral. The Buddha taught morality 500 years before Christ, without citing a supreme being. His teachings are based entirely on the human mind. Buddhists are highly moral people who love their fellow man. Belief in a supreme being plays no part in Buddhism.

  • Me2-BFD

    As an Atheist, I don’t disagree with a lot of what Chris– sorry, what “Christopher” has to say about religion; but, my god, what a pompous ass he is! Granted, he may be brilliant, and all, but does he have to be so obnoxious and rude? He gives the rest of us Atheists a bad name. Now I know how Christians felt about Jerry Falwell, and how Conservatives feel about George W. Bush.

  • Igor


    It’s late and I couldn’t read your piece with the attention it requires, I’m sorry. It seems that you are trying to construct some kind of philosophical argument and to frame materialism/idealism debate in a new way. I’m not sure you succeeded in this, maybe I’m wrong.

    My objection to materialism is not that it is deficient in some way (which, by your contention, can be remedied one way or another), but that it is screwed up much more profoundly. To put it shortly, materialists simply put their version of God into matter. Take, for example, marxist definition of life, which starts with “life is a property of highly organized matter…” and you can stop right there, like, who did the organizing? The answer is, of course, the matter itself, which is therefore both an object and an agent at the same time. And if you extract the agent and call it God, you’ll have an idealistic system, and if you just leave it there in the matter, it’s materialism, for what it’s worth. At some level, it makes no difference, for me it makes no difference at all. The problem is, therefore, you just can’t construct a consistent materialistic system, you can claim to be a materialist, but that doesn’t mean you _are_ one. And all these so called materialists just can’t help slipping into some kind of theist language, when they try to discuss these things.

    And science, be definition it deals with repetitive phenomena, and we are all unique human beings living our unique lives. Consider, for example, a decision to marry or to have children (or not to have them), is science of much help? Well, in some ways it is, but far from giving a complete solution.

  • Sutter: “If organized religions had built-in mechanisms for reform and reevaluation, I’d be more comfortable with them”.

    Like Vatican II? I think reformers pop up all the time in all different religions. Of course some religions are more open to change than others. The entrenched power of the Holy Roman Catholic Church is hard to change but even it changes a little sometimes if it is just deciding to bag the latin mass, that maybe St. Christopher isn’t really a saint after all or maybe its time to reassess limbo or, as with Martin Luther nailing his thesis to the door, maybe its time to start a whole new church. My neo-pagan Wicca circle changed whatever we felt like changing whenever we felt like changing it. Buddhism places a high value on reality where Christians value faith. All religions are different but I think there is reform and reassessment in most of them. As with anything other human enterprise, those who hold power usually try to hang on to it.

    Wow, I just listened to the show. I thought Hitchens came off like a rude windbag. I’d like to know what Al Sharpton thought of him.

  • Nick

    Igor, I must take exception to your 11:39 and 10:35 (again). It’s both unfair and inaccurate.

    First, though: “Well, nobody begins his life as believer, we all do it as newborns.” This is a pointless objection – unless you deem me so stupid that you suppose I think I sprung from the womb asking questions. “Believing or not believing comes later, usually from families, etc.” Of course: human brains create meaning, and our parents train our brains to do it by teaching us language – and then, after we can make meaning (translating the sounds of speech into sense), we depend on them to explain our world: we learn to believe.

    Later (hopefully), we become sophisticated enough to transcend wholesale dependence on belief by learning to “plause” or “empiricate” (see the link below).

    1. Unfair: “those who blindly believe in science” is nothing less than stereotyping. Pardon me, but I’m plenty critical of plenty of science (evolutionary psychology, regular psychology, “memetics”, and more). You can try to apply the scientific method to anything, but not all of it can yield hypotheses or theories – not good ones, anyway. “Theory” is one of the most misused words in English. And plenty of ‘theories’ are little more than junk.

    So, do I “blindly believe in science”? Or do I read the science and decide for myself what’s probable and what isnt’?

    “Science is based on evidence. Opinion does not count. Science has respect for data. (yet not all of reality is measurable by science.”

    —Natalie Angier

    Science doesn’t “tell the truth” – it attempts to describe the processes of nature by discerning probabilities, yet these probabilities rely on the accuracy of the concepts they are framed by and predicated on. If the predicates are faulty or inaccurate, the science is garbage. So, we need new and better concepts – which many scientists coin in order to better explain their findings. Some of these concepts have enduring value (even if imperfect); others, like ‘ ether’, are, after examination, laughable mistakes.

    So, Igor, do I “blindly believe in science”?

    2. Inaccurate: “you _do_ believe in things, quite uncritically, in fact, things like “science is the answer to all problems of human condition”.

    Here, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, the phrase “the human condition” is one of those nonsense concepts that everyone uncritically accepts – but I just don’t get it. It’s no more comprehensible to me than “the sparrow condition”, “the white oak condition” or “the chimpanzee condition”. It yields nothing I can grasp. There are as many “human conditions” as there are humans, and even these vary from one moment of one’s life to the next. (The phrase, “the Christian tradition” is nearly as meaningless: it’s a multiplex of traditions, not a monolith – and yet none of it is wholly coherent. Most of it fails to grasp the inherent incoherence I question at 9:21 PM, May 21st. And resorting to any variant of “God works in mysterious ways” isn’t an escape from that incoherence – it’s a dodge. And an obvious one to anyone not besotted by the faith.)

    Secondly, the scientific method is a tool, and only a tool. Is it my preferred tool for discovery? Yes. But for you to assert that I “believe in it” not only puts words in my mouth, it puts words in my mouth that I reject. Flatly. (By the way I respect Mary Midgely and her critique of Dawkins’s meme idea – but I don’t worship or venerate her any more than I worship or venerate S.J. Gould or Steven Rose – both of whose works I deeply appreciate.)

    3. “…you are so hooked on ‘science’ you cannot even discuss this, there is no language available to you to do that.”

    Not for lack of trying. See this: An Imaginary Gallon

    I’m trying hard to create some of the language necessary to better distinguish passive acceptance (conviction) from active, searching, yet cautiously skeptical cognition. And I resent and reject the implication that I “believe” just as strongly as people of faith. Even when I find a theory or hypothesis somewhat or largely persuasive, I don’t champion it like I would my favorite basketball team – I leave my mind open to the possibility that it might be somewhat inaccurate, largely inaccurate, or worse.

    How many religious believers can comfortably and honestly confess the same uncertainty?

    PS: just saw this: “materialists simply put their version of God into matter.” (1:18 AM)

    Boy do I ever disagree with that. I suggest you’re projecting “God” into the thoughts of people you can’t know. If I’m right, that’s a lot of hubris – but an apparently typical conflation that the religious do with the non-religious. Maybe we “materialists” don’t really think like that. Maybe “God” is as nonsensical a concept to us as “the human condition”. More on this later…

  • Nick

    Afterthought: I might have stumbled, wholly unplanned, onto a worthwhile comparison. If “the human condition” is a generalization so broad it’s as effectively meaningless as “the Blue-winged warbler condition”, “the plankton condition”, or “the iguana condition”, maybe “God” is a generalization we all similarly accept without really knowing why. Maybe “God” is the generalization for all the universe’s mysteries science has been demystifying for the past two and more centuries – and as the mysteries steadily recede, the generalized concept “God” becomes more and more meaningless to many of us following the trend.


    I’ve said elsewhere that the words “Does God exist?” make no more sense to me than “How can I talk to Gandalf?” or “Where is Frodo today?” Just because you can frame an easily imagined personage into a question doesn’t make the question rational or answerable.

  • wwarner

    I thought the show was great.

    Responding to Me2-BFD, Hitchens’ (or “Hitch” as we call him around the

    house) greatest virtue is his ability to clearly state a controversial

    position. One reviewer of “God is not Great” began by thanking god for

    Christopher Hitchens, claiming that while he doubted the hypothesis of the book,

    Hitchens’ rhetoric made it important and readable, especially when

    compared to Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”. Hitchens may not believe in God, but he seems to believe writers commit a mortal sin when they mince words.

    I also agree with Hitchens when it comes to protecting openness in

    public discourse. People should be able to express *disrespect* for

    ideas, especially contemptible ideas, without being afraid.

    So, Hitchens is a great rhetorician and a clear and relevant voice in

    public discourse. Unfortunately, and we can all agree on this, he

    doesn’t get religion.

    Religion is big. That’s why religious people who hate each other have

    the exasperating habit of claiming the same tradition. Christianity

    (I’ll focus on the one I’m familiar with) is, among other things, a

    tradition of thought that spans millennia, crosses oceans, and

    transcends language, class and culture. It’s not the least bit

    irrational to disagree with the apostle Paul regarding homosexuality,

    but agree with him regarding the nature of love. It’s perfectly

    reasonable reject Genesis as a literal account of creation, and at

    the same time accept it as a testament to what Jews 2700 years ago

    knew with certainty, that “It was good.” At that level, it’s

    indisputable, and a hell of a lot more satisfying than string theory.

    Religion is a cosmological posture regarding things that no one can

    prove. Belief in God is hard to distinguish from any scientist’s trust

    that the universe is ordered by intelligible law. How does one prove

    that the night sky is breathtaking. How did I know it was wrong even

    before I did it? Why do I hope that poetry fills each moment? Science,

    with it’s limited authority, doesn’t, and shouldn’t, offer

    explanations here. We have to settle for “myth”.

  • nick, “Maybe “God” is the generalization for all the universe’s mysteries science has been demystifying for the past two and more centuries”

    It seems to me science brings forth at least as many mysteries as it demystifies. I’m thinking of String Theory. I’m guessing the Universe will always have more mysteries for us however many we think we have figured out.

  • Nick

    Peggy Sue, you might be conflating “mystery” with “complexity”. I’m not qualified to comment on String theory – and neither are many of its proponents. Lee Smolin, who has worked on it, despairs because it’s the only unsettled major theory currently holding significant cachet that, he says, he can’t explain in plain English (which drives him nuts). I suppose I’m saying that until String theory is either better understood (and articulated) by its proponents or abandoned as an alluring but fallacious dead-end, it’s a special case.

    Science HAS demystified many if not most of the mysteries incomprehensible before the development of its methodology. Does it find, in some places and instances, further questions? Sure, but it doesn’t then throw up its hands as Augustine would have had us do (read my link @ 2:06 PM, May 21st), and say, “Well, that’s over! We’re hopelessly ignorant! And rightly so!”

    It might entail a lot of mistaken hypothesizing and lots of time, but the truly curious scientists set out to demystify the new questions.

    And I am their grateful beneficiary for it, too.

  • herbert browne

    I’m no stand-in for Igor, orlox- but I read your piece and care to respond… notably to “..if the non-problematic material universe cannot be sensibly thought of as merely substance, then an “extra ingredient” that is somehow non-material is doubly nonsensical. Instead of correcting materialism’s conceptual error, it is compounded..”-

    What I’d offer is the same thing that the Arabs allegedly offered the Romans, ie the concept of Zero (or a “null set”… or “The Mother of Great Space”)- which is both “an extra ingredient” and “non-material”- and offers a more complete & satisfying “reality” (for some).

    Re (from Cathy) ..”Hitchens is correct in saying that intelligent discussion about the Christian faith requires the CREEDS of the ancient tradition and that without these, what is called or who is called a “Christian” – is really irrelevant. Without the CREEDS, (i.e. – the Virgin Birth, incarnation, crucifixion (yes, it was worse than Gibson’s Passion), and the resurrection – well, so-called “Christianity” swiftly disintegrates into CHAOS — and everyone’s “interpretation” becomes..”- (etc)

    To use Cathy’s own later judgement on another issue- “Balderdash!” The “Christians” somehow managed to maintain a growing following, with enough coherence to be a recognizable presence to the rulers of the Roman Empire- who TOOK IT UPON THEMSELVES TO ESTABLISH WHAT “CHRISTIAN” DEFINED (PRIMARILY TO SUIT THEIR OWN DESIGNS)- some 300+ years after Christ had allegedly exited “stage Up”. Nothing ossifies like hierarchy…

    About belief… isn’t that a situation post-conceptualization and pre-assertion?.. or the “comfort zone” of the curious mind (somewhat resembling Conjecture)? There is more, though… What I see among many zealous “believers” today is paralleled in the struggles of environmentalists with the free-market nihilists. The spotted owl is an example of an icon, which becomes a fulcrum to those who “believe in” the values of biodiversity that includes old-growth forests. It is seized upon because it has measurable legal status that has some scientific credibility. In this way it becomes similar to the words of a Jesus or a Mohammed, or to the promise of “an angel of the Lord” to the children of Jacob. The issues may be far more complex- cultural issues- but these iconic presences offer some legitimacy to pursue continuation of cultures, or redressment of perceived wrongs… issues that pertain to (& appeal to) our sense of morality. When politics (at the bidding, too often, of “economic interests”) conflates morality with self-serving views (eg “Manifest destiny”), religion may become a fulcrum to those who wish to move things to suit their interests. Religion has been a useful tool, both in its general sense of supporting the notion that “old ways are best,” with its use as an advance party to the mercantilists in its guise of “proselytizer to the heathen”; and in neither case is the promotion of morality uppermost. Blaming religion for the hate in the world is a little like blaming money for greed… ^..^

  • herbert browne

    Nick, what’s the problem with a concept of “the human condition”? Are you making a case that the spatio-temporal “condition” of every human is “different”- so that the concept is as broad as every individual’s existence (incl state of mind, & other internal chemical after-effects)… something like that? This is an example (to me) of one “problem” with the dominant “branch” of scientific enquiry (aka “the splitters”), where one examines differences in order, by that differentiation, to establish unique qualities of a subject, in order to positively identify that subject in every circumstance. But, if that’s your “take’, you’re conflating that process with another, ie individual identity. “The human condition” should properly address shared qualities, by which the great majority of humans will be recognizable- ie what we all have in common- Not what makes us “different”. I’m thinking of attributes, like “social, mammalian, curious, acquisitive, introspective, manipulative, so fabulously successful that we have unwittingly become an engine of extinction of other species…” etc etc… like that. ^..^

  • orlox

    Of course zero is passed from India to Persia to the Arabs to Renaissance Europe. Roman numerals are missing zero. However, the conceptual ‘absence of local matter’ does not imply therefore the local existence of non-material. Any concept is represented by your mind materially and in specific ways. Indeed, you will find the concept of zero mapped quite specifically in your fusiform gyrus with the other numbers.

  • orlox

    wwarner – Only certain cosmological religious postures stand beyond proof. A transcendent god who starts it all off then sits back and doesn’t touch creation: very difficult to disprove. The popular conception is that it is beyond provability, but physicists are beginning to pose questions and even conceptualize experiments to probe beyond the big bang. As a final refuge for the ‘god of the gaps’ even a transcendent god might not be safe.

    The conception of an immanent god, who makes statues cry blood, or talks to you before bedtime is well within the realm of disproof.

    Trust that the universe is ordered has been confirmed with uncanny precision and to many decimal places in the standard model or even the periodicity of elements. Trust that our physics applies everywhere and at all times is necessarily limited by the fact that we haven’t observed all that there is. But our observational horizons are nonetheless vast.

    Each of your questions can should and will be addressed by science. I will grant myth an indispensable place in the human narrative but I will not give over separate magesteria. Qualia, morality, the transcendence of art all pose difficult questions but not unanswerable ones.

  • Potter

    herbert browne: Blaming religion for the hate in the world is a little like blaming money for greed… ^..^

    The analogy does not stand up. Money is something you collect if you are greedy.

    Money is a store of labor, a token, a medium of exchange. Money is neutral… it has no inherent need to survive or convert you that comes along with it. You can throw your money in the trash.

    Religion is not something you collect if you are hateful.

    Religions are stores, stores of beliefs: the belief systems of various gathering collectives of people through time, decidedly less abstract. People carry and alter, interpret, crystallize and push forward religions. Religions, generally older and more established, are more like nations or corporations which also carry sets of ideas, ways of seeing, being, living and acting, laws.

    Money carries none of that baggage.

    Religions offer the means of spiritual transcendence but are not neutral in so doing, having points of view, symbolisms, dogmas, interpretations, mandates. As well religions have been responsible for proactively creating, promoting and spreading much hate (which is it’s dysfunction). The business of transcendence too often takes a minor role to the greed for religious hegemony.

    Religion therefore is unlike money which one merely covets.

    Religions as collectives deeply entrenched, like tribes and nations, fight to survive and spread. Money survives for practical reasons.

    Has religion served as much to bring the world together as it has to help break it apart?

    Can little ol’ money do what religion can’t?

  • Tom Morris

    Oh, for crying out loud, can we please stop the “neo-atheism” and “new atheists” schtick now. There’s nothing new about the atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris. It’s the same atheism that almost all atheists have. It’s the atheism which caused me – at age 11 – to simply say ‘there is no God, just as there is no Santa or tooth fairy’. The only thing new about new atheism is that has come at a time when so many people are unable to come to the same, sensible conclusion.

    The ‘new atheists’ simply use the rhetoric and logic that any other person holding a position about life or society would. If someone said “I believe that there exists discrimination by gender”, we would not say “Ah, that is a *new* feminist”. As Dawkins has pointed out, the fact that atheism is seen as radical is not a reflection on atheism – in any other sphere of life and thought, this view would not be seen as radical.

    ‘Neo-atheism’ makes about as much sense as ‘neo-soul’. Neither exists – they have just been conjured up by lazy journalists (which, unfortunately, do exist). It serves only one purpose – to provide a justification for argumentum ad hominem. Instead of “Is [Hitchens/Dawkins/etc.] right?” the question becomes “Isn’t [Hitchens/Dawkins/etc.] a rude old boor?” Which is ridiculous. You can be rude and right, or fawningly polite and utterly wrong. I would put Hitchens in to the first category and the Bishops of the Anglican Church in to the latter.

  • bft

    “God grant that every Communist be able to fight as Stalin fought.” –Nikita Khrushchev

  • Potter

    By the way I thought Hitchens put forward some interesting questions/ thoughts though I have to listen again but he suggested that those waiting at the bottom of Mt. Sinai for Moses, did not need the most important of the 10 commandments ( or perhaps any), that they would have come to these laws on their own in order to survive, if they did not already know these things ( and perhaps just need some authority?).

    BTW-Religious Jews are celebrating this week as they do every year this time: the giving of the law (to later become the Torah- the first five books of the Bible) from Mt. Sinai. God in this story speaks to Moses. I have been told ( by my religious relatives) that if you don’t believe that, then you are not practicing Judiasm. This is part of why I am a complete exile, not even watered down, though I think the myth/the story is wonderful.

    A recommended book btw- Archeologist Wm Dever’s “Who were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?”

    Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shavuot


  • Potter

    Since I use the term “human condition” I submit this to the discussion:


  • Sutter


    Sorry, but not like Vatican II (see my reference to Tom Lehrer above). Science is willing (grudgingly, I confess) to chuck its most sacred beliefs — see the current debate over quantum mechanics and string theory. Organized religions — in my experience, anyway — are unwilling to entertain fundamental dissent, and could never countenance and survive a reevaluation of core ideas like the existence of God. But I don’t purport to be an expert in organized religion, so if you can tell me otherwise, I’ll listen humbly and perhaps retract!

  • Sutter

    Hitchens is a great rhetorical infighter, but he’s particularly ill-suited for this message, not only because of Iraq but also because his brand of derision comes across even more badly when aimed at people of faith than at other times. I’d try to separate the message and the messenger here, and to focus on the former.

  • hurley

    I hate to say I told you so…Hitchens gave his usual predictable performance — I knew it was only a matter of time before he objected to Chris calling him Chris. Strange how those quickest to give offence so often that much quicker to take it. He humiliates the unfortunate Mr. Glaude on air, then cries foul at a friendly abbreviation of his name. If only Chris had had the wit to reply that Christopher was his name too. But of course Chris, to his credit, too much the gent for that. You can’t win a pissing contest with a skunk. Hitchens right in his thrust, but he has no parry but contempt to an appeal beyond the narrow terms of his violent certainty — a quality he shares with many of his targets — making you wonder just how broadly he’s contemplated his subject. “To honor every man, absolutely every man, is the truth.” (Kierkegaard) I have my quibbles with that, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

  • wwarner

    orlox –

    why should i “trust” the standard model? the one thing that is certain, without any margin of error, is that it is false, as it will be superceded by a more accurate and more elegant model unless we’re unusually unlucky. That is even more obvious for the various claims of cosmology (the science), which can’t make up it’s mind about anything at all. And just because I point out the highly mythological nature of the big bang, dark matter and the search for extra-terrestrial life doesn’t imply that I believe that the universe was created in seven days six thousand years ago. Here I am, Mr. Hitchens, living proof that a religious person can live without a answer. Moreover, the fact that I accept the uncertainty of scientific claims in no way detracts from beauty or purpose of science.

    how will science prove that “it was good?”, or that “love is patient and kind?” how can science account for meaning without creating a religion? if it does, will i have to trust it?

    i am a religious person because science alone leaves the world a very cold place. a purely scientific outlook invites a spartan, somewhat ruthless world, in which children and sick people are nuisances. in a way, it’s a fearful outlook that focuses on measurable human accomplishments and avoids potent questions for which it has no answer.

  • Martin Brock

    Hitchens is eloquent and obstinate as usual. The bickering is all about the definition of “religion”. In Hitchens’ way of thinking, if you aren’t Jerry Falwell or Osama bin Laden, then you aren’t seriously religious, and if you’re Stalin or Pol Pot, you’re religious in spite of what you say, so religion is the root of all evil, by definition. [The program didn’t address the atheistic, totalitarian states of the twentieth century for some reason, but the gist of this argument is there.]

    When Glaude protests that religious traditions are highly varied and that most religious people are not remotely like Falwell or bin Laden (any more than most atheists are like Pol Pot), either in their beliefs or in their practices, Hitchens conveniently can’t understand the words, so he says.

    Bin Laden’s grievances are avowedly political. His solutions are theocratic, but he doesn’t oppose established Arab states because they are irreligious. His own Saudi Arabia is among the most theocratic, and he opposes it most of all. He opposes destructive western imperialism on the Arab peninsula, so he says. By contrast, Baathist Iraq was one of the most secular states in the middle east, vehemently opposed by Islamists who routinely accused Baathists of atheism.

    If Pol Pot were a garden variety, western atheist, he’d be no more notorious than the rest of us, but he was instead the head of a state that banned all religious practice while killing millions of people in the name of establishing its own version of a secular utopia.

    But religion is the root of all evil, not politics, not state power or reverence for state power, not ideological zeal, not accepting any assertion of “fact” convenient to your aims (a la Nigerian uranium). It’s all about religion.

    Oh, and anything nice apparently flowing from religious tradition is only there by chance. The good stuff would exist anyway, but the bad stuff is pretty much all about religion. I rejected conventional religion when I was twelve, and I rejected Hitchens’ simplistic thesis a few years later. A mind boggling variety of faith systems exist, practically one per person. Most do no harm, and atheistic systems sometimes do the most harm. If you didn’t learn this lesson from the twentieth century, your head is firmly planted in the sand.

  • Sutter

    wwarner, I took Hitch to be saying that he had no quarrel with your sort of religion (which, again, I would call “spirituality” or “weak faith”). His problem (and mine, though I’m not suggesting we agree on the particulars, nor that I approve his polemical style) is with those who adhere to the empirical or normative “Truth claims” made by particular religions without any evidence. You and I agree about the things that commend spirutuality: the wonder, the higher joy, etc. But however much of a rude boob Hitch is (and we all knew that about him 24 hours ago, even if it caused less discomfort when aimed at Henry Kissinger than when aimed at God), the question he poses — the question that still hasn’t been answered here — begs for an answer: If one is NOT willing to surrender the Truth claims, one needs to explain (1) why they are valid, or (2) why one can’t carry on with the spiritual aspects of religion _without_ the Truth claims. Because it is those Truth claims (some of which you expressly deny in your post), and NOT the underlying spirituality, that cause most or all of the harm about which Hitch complains.

  • Sutter – well Vatican II is like the most conservative religion ever just budging a micro meter, For the Holy Roman Catholic Church I think any greater change takes a Martin Luther starting a whole new religion.

    I have heard the Dalai Lama joke that his beleif in reincarnation is not any more absurd than believing in God and that in his tradition if science were to prove that a long held belief, like reincarnation, were not possible he would accept the scientific view. There is the Buddhist value of reality.

    And then a small localized nature based group of hippy pagans can change whatever they want whenever they want to.

    My point was that not all religions are the same and maybe should not be judged as if they were.

  • Martin Brock


    A Faith (like belief in reincarnation or some other form of immortality) is accepted without evidence by definition, so a person accepting a Faith need NOT (and cannot) explain its validity. If I have faith that I’ll fly when I leap off a fence if I really believe, reality intervenes soon enough. I did the Peter Pan thing once as a child and learned a valuable lesson about faith. I closed my eyes and !did! believe, right until the moment I slapped the ground. Now, I’m a skydiver.

    Most faith systems are not so easily penetrated, because they’re untestable by design. We all operate on these systems. We all have faith that unlikely events, like being struck by a drunk driver, happen to other people, not to us; otherwise, we’d walk everywhere. Some of us have faith that occupying Iraq will make the middle east safe for liberal democracy, rather than empowering allies of Iran and severely straining the U.S. Treasury a decade before a hundred million baby boomers expect Social Security benefits. Some faith systems are more destructive than others. In this regard, comforting faiths in a more pleasant hereafter don’t begin to rival faiths in the virtues of state action.

  • Sutter

    On that we agree absolutely, peggysue.

  • Sutter

    Martin, now we’ve come full circle. You “need not” explain anything. Except if you wish to have dialogue with someone who does not belief on an a priori basis. So, when it comes to Truth claims, you can believe you will fly, and I can believe you will not, but that doesn’t mean either (1) that you or I are right (though I have a strong suspicion), or (more importantly) (2) that I must respect your Truth claim simply because it is garbed in religious language. If you think you can fly — or that homosexuality is evil or that a man walked on water two thousand years ago or whatever — because of what an old book says, you of course are entitled to believe it, but (and I think this is Hitch’s point, not having read the book), you are NOT entitled to foist that view or its practical implications on me simply on the basis of the a priori statement that it is True.

  • Martin Brock


    You need not accept a faith to discuss it, so a person accepting a faith need not explain it to you for this purpose. Most of what we believe does not involve scientific Truth claims. I understand the aerodynamics of a skydiving canopy to some extent, and I understand the strength of nylon lines, but this understanding doesn’t get me out the door at 14,000 feet. I’ve seen people killed, and I’ve seen people severely injured, and I’ve been less severely injured myself. To jump, I require faith that unlikely, but not soo unlikely, tragedy will not befall me. If I deny this need, !then! I’m out of touch with reality.

    My language is not garbled.

    I haven’t said anything about homosexuality or walking on water.

    No one proposes to foist anything on you.

  • Sutter

    I don’t believe I said you were garbled, or that you had made claims about homosexuality or walking on water, Martin. I do, however, think your analogy to skydiving ir misplaced. You do know, based on science not faith, that most times people jump out of airplanes with the right equipment and training, they do not get injured or die. Whether you know anything about the mechanics governing your ultimate safety is really beside the point. The result is observable in a way that the validity of organized religions’ Truth claims are not. Again, you are free to believe what you like. I for one am not compelled by arguments that must assume that which they seek to prove. And that is how I view religious arguments for particular moral or empirical claims. Faith is faith, and I have no quarrel with your belief in those things, so long as when you try try to get others to come along — others without your faith — you come with some other tools at your disposal.

    I’m struck, though, that nobody is willing to stand up and defend Truth claims themselves. The only response thus far is “why do I need to defend them to you?” Which is fine for interior faith, but if there’s to be argument over religion, presumably it’s because one side hopes to persuade the other side of something or other. With no offence to Martin, whether or not he believes he can fly is really of no consequence to me.

  • Martin Brock

    I didn’t accuse you of saying that I’m garbled and so on. I only said that I’m not. You aren’t addressing some Falwellian bogey man, and you won’t find many to address here. You’re addressing me.

    I do know that a skydiving accident is unlikely (though I’ve dislocated elbows twice myself), but this knowledge doesn’t get me out the door. I assume, regardless of the likelihood, that I’ll fly like Peter Pan for 60 seconds and then sail under a kite for five minutes before landing safely. This assumption relies as much on faith, including faith in myself, as on any empirical Truth claim about the strength of nylon lines. Faith in the efficacy of occupying Iraq is an even better example, because no precedent creates the sense of statistical certainty you cite.

    Religions do !not! impose moral claims on people in my neck of the woods. States do so. In fact, states do so even in parts of the world where theocracy is still the rule. Iran is not monolithically Shia. Sunni Muslims, Bahais and Christians also live (and die) there. Adherents to other religions suffer under a theocratic state most of all, and adherents to religions generally suffered under Pol Pot’s atheistic state. Blaming religion for forcible propriety (or morality) makes no sense at all. Secular states are every bit as forcible, and the most tyrannical, secular states easily rival their theocratic counterparts. Tyranny certainly is not unique to theocratic states.

    You’re right. What I believe about my mortality is really of no consequence to you either, but as a matter of fact, for the great majority of religious people surrounding you, this sort of inconsequential belief is most of what separates their way of thinking from yours. So why is religion Hitchens’ root of all evil?

  • hurley

    Lest you feel lonely and embattled in this argument, Sutter, I’m happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with you — better yet a step behind, since you lead so well — in defence of the truth claims of science against those of religion. But then reasoning with faith is almost tautologically pointless, so why bother? (My point about the show.) I have no interest in disabusing people of their cherished illusions, unless of course they’re attempting to ram them down my throat, threatening to jump out of an airplane without a parachute, etc.

    It has to be said of Hitchens that, for all his verve and supple rhetoric, one of the reasons for his success is that he picks fairly easy targets — Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, etc. Religion just the latest in a line of sitting ducks. It doesn’t take much to refute its claims in empirical terms. He’s coasting here; it’s a vast betrayal of his talents, though not the first.

  • Nick

    Thanks to herbert browne and Potter for the “human condition” responses. Maybe I’m hopelessly stupid, but even after reading Herbert and Wikipedia, the generalization remains not only too broad for me to understand in any meaningful way, its examples of explanatory questions don’t apply to me:

    “What is the meaning of existence? Why was I born? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die?”

    These are very common questions framed, by conventional wisdom, as “mysteries”, but are they? Case by case:

    1. What is the meaning of existence?

    Here’s a smaller scale analogue of that one: “What is the beauty of a sunset?” You might think you can answer it, and you probably can – for you. Does it have an objective answer, however? Or is the assessment and appreciation of beauty a decidedly subjective issue?

    Try this one: “What is the ugliness of a sunset?”

    How is that an answerable question? I’d say it’s at least a degree more nonsensical than its seemingly innocent and potentially answerable predecessor, “What is the beauty of a sunset?” One further degree of nonsense: “What is the sonority of a sunset?” – and we’re right back to where we began, “What is the meaning of existence?” – a grammatically correct question whose premise is nonsense, because the first five-word formulation simply isn’t applicable to the sixth word, just like, “What is the sonority of a sunset?”

    2. Why was I born?

    Try this: Why wasn’t I spawned? Or sprouted?

    3. Why am I here?

    Why am I not a tree?

    Am I being too glib? No, I don’t think so. Questions 2 & 3 presuppose alternative possibilities simply impossible for human beings. “Why was I born?” & “Why am I here?” are grammatically correct nonsense questions. You can ask other questions premised on nonsense-options too: “Why aren’t hummingbirds eagles?”, or “Why aren’t rocks water?”, or “Why isn’t hydrogen beryllium?” (Because then it wouldn’t BE hydrogen! It would be beryllium!) “Why can’t pigs be pigeons?”

    “Why am I here?” – where else COULD you be???

    4. “Where will I go when I die?”

    This one presupposes ‘other places’ than the sensible world whose energies take a specific human form over the span of a human lifetime. Can we imagine transcending the world? Yes! Our biggest world religions are built on it. But if no ‘other places’ are detectable, is the premise that ‘other places’ await my bodiless ego after me-the-human-body dies sensical, or nonsensical?

    My “human condition” doesn’t understand these questions. They implicitly presuppose patently impossible alternatives.

    Richard Dawkins uses the statement “All unicorns are hollow” to similar effect – but that doesn’t quite fit into this post. And now I’m out of time. Again.

    But I’ve a question for Sutter coming soon…

  • Nick

    Oh! One last quickie. This site is worth a gander:

    Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence

  • Potter

    Upon listening again, and in response to some harsh criticism and ad hominems here directed towards Hitchens, I feel that there was plenty of insult all the way around. The difference was in delivery. Sweetly couched nastiness versus, nasty nastiness ( or whatever you may call it). Listen again. ( Sorry Hurley and others).

    As well Christopher Hitchens was rather polite when he asked Chris Lydon to call him please “Christopher” after allowing the first instance to pass ( considering it apparently bothered him even though Chris Lydon seemed to mean something friendly).

    After a second listening- Nick- I think I am not so disappointed. I am okay about it. On another level there was “stuff” happening that was “interesting”. Rationality cannot defend religion after a certain point as others have said here. I think there WAS agreement that modernized or modified religion was not a problem (though Hitchens wondered why one needed that at all). I can understand why people do need it and how they benefit from it. Hitchens separates that kind of religion from a more hard core religion- the kind that I for instance had no choice but to take or leave, the kind that can very well cause trouble in the world ( and does).

    This, imo is one of those shows that has a thread that is in many ways more interesting than the show… but still I am thankful for the show.

  • x2ferry


    Certainly people make rational decisions about thinking like jumping out of airplanes, but to imply faith is not a component of those decisions requires a kind of robotic view of the human being. Do you really mean to suggest that reason can or should nudge aside encouragement, hope, pride, fear, stubbornness, sorrow–to name but a few of our more obvious motivators?

    Of course equipment and training matter, but Martin’s point was that equipment and training don’t put you in the doorway of the airplane. They don’t even get you out of bed in the morning. The rational actor model implies that jumping out of a plane should be considered as more or less equal to shoveling the driveway, since both pose risks to life and limb (perhaps shoveling snow is more dangerous!) Of course no actual human being could adopt this equivalence.

    There is a definition of “faith” that denotes clinging to ideas, emotions, or outcomes in the face of contrary logic and experience. Many “religious” people have no use for this defintion, preferring the more profound definition wherein “faith” is what happens when the clinging stops. It’s also, incidentally, the seed of play, invention, and scientific hypothesis.

  • x2ferry

    sorry: “things” not “thinking.”

    The ROS baords need a “preview” function!

  • Nick

    quick postscript to my 1:42 PM:

    “What is the purpose of hydrogen?”

    “What is the purpose of the hummingbird at my feeder?”

    (“Why am I here?”)

  • hurley

    Hi Potter, I didn’t hear much nastiness toward Hitchens during the broadcast. Chris did try and air his disapproval of Hitchens’ stance on the Iraq war less gracefully than he might have, though the outcome of that had more to do with H’s aggressive posture than anything else. As for the thread and my comments on it, I write more as a jilted admirer than anything else, remembering all the while his role in preparing the ground for the war and the near million who’ve died as a result so far. He “manured” that turf fairly well, did he not? I’d cop to the obvious charge of failing to separate the man from his message had he not, in his gifted and flamboyant manner, become so much the matter of his message, the message itself (“Hitchens v. God,” etc.). But — dinner is served, lucky me.

  • Nick


    I agree with Sutter that “faith” isn’t necessary for deciding to take a risk, and will illustrate with a personal anecdote later. I think there are two different kinds of cognition going on here in this exchange. Not all of use “faith” or belief. Assessing probability is the other style of cognition.

    Now I’m really out of time…

  • you know.. Im a non regilious person.. or an atheist or whatever tag you want to put on me. But one thing I can’t shake and I absolutely despise about Hitchens, is that he is an asshole. And by asshole I mean outright mean and unwilling to listen to others or ever revise his thinking on any point. He takes a discussion and makes it into a one-way conversation. I guess thats his thing, and it probably helps to sell books.

  • herbert browne

    (from orlox) ..”Any concept is represented by your mind materially and in specific ways. Indeed, you will find the concept of zero mapped..”- (etc)

    So, you’re saying that, since “zero” is “mapped” (in the minds of those who contemplate) that it has a “material presence”? hmm… So, anything that’s “mapped” has a Material Presence, then? I guess that includes The Future? hmmm… What am I waiting for? If I can imagine a situation in which the matter/energy continuum is entirely located at the “energy” locus, so that a time-free space exists, well, does it? Did it? Will it? Aren’t you conflating the medium with the message?

    (Potter says) ..”Money is neutral..”- (and also) ..”(R)eligions are stores, stores of beliefs:”

    Both human constructs?.. & both neutral? I’d also posit that the “stores” were of more in the nature of behavioral guidelines; and that the tenets came later- as “justifications” for more pragmatic things that couldn’t be easily explained- they just seemed to “work”…

    (Potter goes on) ..”the belief systems of various gathering collectives of people through time, decidedly less abstract. People carry and alter, interpret, crystallize and push forward religions..”-

    Ahh, yes! PEOPLE “do things” with religion- just like we “do things” with money. You may have money, and some greedy person may try and take it from you… and you may have a set of beliefs, & some hateful person may come along and try to foist a new set- a religion- on you. Is it the money’s fault that you’re a target of thieves?.. or the religion’s fault that you’re a target of the proselytizer? (I know… I sound like the NRA, blaming “people” & not “guns”… or “bullets”.) ^..^

    Re Hitchens’ “contribution” to this, ah, debate: I think that kate mcshane defined him well, by blowing into the other end of his bugle and making a fine balloon in the process. He is a self-righteous, often puerile, sophist blowhard- all preening Wit, & no Manners… ^..^

  • Martin Brock

    No one seemed nasty to me, but Hitchens was evasive at times. I understand the bit about “Christopher”. My name is Martin. My folks named me Martin and always called me Martin. My friends, relatives and people generally have always called me Martin. When someone calls me “Marty”, I say, “Everyone calls me ‘Martin’.” I’m not demanding formality, only the name I’m accustomed to hearing.

  • Sutter

    x2f says, “Certainly people make rational decisions about thinking like jumping out of airplanes, but to imply faith is not a component of those decisions requires a kind of robotic view of the human being. Do you really mean to suggest that reason can or should nudge aside encouragement, hope, pride, fear, stubbornness, sorrow–to name but a few of our more obvious motivators?”

    No, not at all. Just that this is precisely the kind of “faith” one can have without any particular view about God (including a view that God exists). My argument all through this thread (and I’m scared to count how many times I’ve posted on it!) has been:

    First, that we can have “weak faith” — faith in things like hope and pride and community and connectedness — without also carrying around faith in what I’ve called “Truth claims” about (1) the nature of the physical world (including but not limited to creation) or (2) moral precepts.

    Second, that it’s ok to base this kind of “weak faith” on unprovable a prioris beliefs.

    Third, that it’s even ok to believe in empirical or normative “Truth claims” (the world was created in this way or that; this or that is the right way to act; BUT

    Fourth, that once we use our belief in such empirical or normative Truth claims as the basis for what someone else, or ther state, should or should not do, we need to bring more to the table than that a priori Truth claim itself. At that point — and only at that point — it’s no longer enough to say “I believe it because my religion tells me so.” Up until that point, I’m happy to grant people their faith, and I even suggest above that it might be sensible for those without faith to trick themselves into believing in something greater than the cold hard world of science.

  • Sutter


    In my neck of the woods, people driven by “strong faith” (belief in normative a prioris) work to exert political power, and do so quite effectively. Often but not always, these are religiously grounded a prioris. I agree with you that there is no basis for singling out the religious a prioris, whatever Hitchens may think about that. It’s just that this is a thread about religion.

    On your skydiving example, I hear you, but I’d push back about the role faith is palying in your jump. Would your faith prompt you to jump off a skyscraper? I suspect not. The difference is that your faith is influenced by your empirical belief about what will happen to you: It’s only because of the low chance of real injury that you’re willing to put faith in faith, as it were. (Or, I suppose, you might have the more sophisticated view that God helps those who help themselves and would be less likely to grant flight to someone who did someone so dumb. But even there, your faith is tied to the empirical odds.)

    One more point: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest you were akin to Falwell. And I am fully prepared to acknowledge that the Truth claims you support would be far less damaging to our world than his, if implemented and acted on. But putting that aside, I think my claim is that while far less unpalatable, your Truth claims have no better an epistemological foundation than his. Ultimately, both rely on unprovables and imponderables. It’s that fact that make his Truth claims and yours equally unsuited (in my view, of course) for implementation with respect to those who don’t share them.

  • Sutter

    Two comments: First, in my first sentence, I surely don’t mean ALL people driven by strong faith — just some.

    Second, given that Martin uses his real name, I hope he won’t mind that I’ve checked out his website. He has some truly stunning photos there. They’re really beautiful. I urge others to search them out!

  • herbert browne

    Nick, with all due respect, “assessing probability” isn’t the same as “faith”- or “belief”, I don’t think… but prove it up- I’ll read it.

    Here’s a “fact”- you will find Faith in the dictionary between Fairy Tale & Fate. Should we examine this juxtaposition more deeply? chow ^..^

  • Sutter

    BTW, many thanks for the help, Hurley! I’m actually much more “religious” than most of my friends (mostly atheists to my agnostic), so it’s a funny position I’m in here…

  • Nick

    “assessing probability” isn’t the same as “faith”- or “belief”

    Herbert, this is exactly my point! Maybe my haste (running in and out of the room while rreadying for a trip to town) is making my writing dismal.

    later this afternoon I’ll give my story and an explanation of how my :

    “assessing probability” isn’t the same as “faith”- or “belief”.


  • orlox

    Herbert – my point would never involve capitalizing stuff. I hope that you are not mistaking representation with that which is being represented. My point is that even as a concept in your mind, zero never left the material world. Again, absence of material does not imply existence of non-material prima facie.

  • x2ferry


    Sorry not have have followed your thread upstream re: “weak faith”. We’re in close agreement, though I would want to use other terms. Calling the essential form of faith weak and the superfluous form strong seems backwards somehow,

    As for backing up Truth claims, however, scratch any truth claim deeply enough and you’ll hit upon premises that must be taken for granted. For example, deciding to talk of the world as made of things, rather than processes.

  • Sutter

    x2f, I’m in agreement re: “weak” and “strong” — I took that from the field of artificial intelligence (and I think other philosophical fields) that use “strong” to denote “more aggressive” or some such. If I could go back in time a few days, I would have used other terms, because every time I’ve written “weak faith” since then I’ve worried that it suggests something pejorative.

  • Potter

    Herbert Browne Blaming religion for the hate in the world is a little like blaming money for greed……

    Ahh, yes! PEOPLE “do things” with religion- just like we “do things” with money. You may have money, and some greedy person may try and take it from you… and you may have a set of beliefs, & some hateful person may come along and try to foist a new set- a religion- on you. Is it the money’s fault that you’re a target of thieves?.. or the religion’s fault that you’re a target of the proselytizer? …

    From religious texts can be found justification even mandate to cause harm in the service of God.. Money is not telling you to do anything. Your action w regard to money satisfies personal need vis a vis greed. If the misguided hateful person is trying to foist a new set of beliefs upon you, those beliefs must be of a particular religion to have any force. The weight of a large powerful deep-rooted organization (with indisputable texts) is behind that coercion- even to justify crime, Fundamental forms of religion facilitate or enable the spread of hate the way money does not. (Clerics who encourage or who are even silent are complicit.)

    Hurley- I respect your opinion… I had a different perception esp after second listen.

  • Potter

    Nick- the human condition is more than the questions themselves or needing the answers to the questions, questions that cannot really be answered. From the wiki beginning- which I thought was good:

    The human condition encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living human lives. As mortal entities, there are a series of biologically determined events that are common to most human lives, and some that are inevitable for all. The ongoing way in which humans react to or cope with these events is the human condition. However, understanding the precise nature and scope of what is meant by the human condition is itself a philosophical problem.

    The term is also used in a metaphysical sense, to describe the joy, terror and other feelings or emotions associated with being and existence. Humans, to an apparently superlative degree amongst all living things, are aware of the passage of time, can remember the past and imagine the future, and are intimately aware of their own mortality………

    The human struggle to find answers to these questions — and the very fact that we can conceive them and ask them — is what defines the human condition in this sense of the term.

  • Nick

    Okay. A couple of hundred moons ago, I was a NYC cabbie. (Really.) One day while pulling over on Second Avenue to pick up a fare, I felt a funny ‘nudge’ in my steering wheel – not a pothole only, but something more. The fare jumped in and gave an address uptown that would have required me to jump onto the FDR Drive, up to about 72nd street or so (I no longer recall the exits). But as I turned the wheel to drive off…the steering didn’t comply. The ‘nudge’ had been a breakage in the steering linkage.

    At first I was only annoyed: my night ruined; awaiting a tow truck and missing the best of the evening’s money-making hours.

    Then it hit me: the steering might well have broken while I was on the FDR – a twisting, concrete-fortified elevated highway over the East River. That changed everything, although I didn’t quit driving. Instead, I gauged the chances of a repeat as “possible” but not “probable enough” to warrant quitting.

    However…that incident sparked a recurrent nightmare: driving at high speed toward a concrete wall with no brakes and broken steering. A nightmare I’d wake from in a sweat. With a pounding heart.

    Still, I’ve never stopped driving. But not because I “believe” it won’t happen again. I worry over it, not in constant terror, but deep in the back of my mind. Because I can’t quite forget that recurrent nightmare (although I haven’t had to wake from it in many, many years.) But I have no ‘faith’ that my drives will never see a recurrence of that one frightening Second Avenue instance.

    Several days every summer I drive a treacherous, unpaved road (FR 2860, for those familiar with the northeastern Olympic Mountains) cut into very steep slopes. With no guardrails. And it’s potholed. And very, very twisty – and its edges loom over sheer precipices. A steering or brake failure would almost surely severely injure or kill me. Do I “believe” it won’t happen?

    No way.

    I “guestimate” the probability. Like this:

    Although the chances are probably much higher than 1 in 1000 that my steering or brakes might fail while I speed toward the mountain-slope trailheads, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s 1 in 1000. Should I expect, therefore, that the 1000th pothole I cream into will bring my demise? No. There is no hidden abacus in nature tallying up my pothole encounters. If the odds really are 1 in 1000, they’re 1 in 1000 for EVERY pothole encounter. It’s not CUMULATIVE: nothing is tallying up my potholes. If it were, then the second pothole’s odds would be 1 in 999, and the 1000th would be 1 to 1. But probability doesn’t work that way—the universe doesn’t have an invisible calculator. This isn’t to say that the odds don’t steadily decline as the vehicle ages: of course it does. The older the steering, the more prone it is to failure, especially if jolted. But whatever the odds are on any given mountainside drive, they stay that way (effectively).

    None of this is “conviction” or faith. I’m not at all “convinced” that I’ll not fly off one of those FR 2860 precipices. I’m fully aware of the risk, fearful of it, and yet willing to accept the slim chance that my hiking habit will kill me — not on the mountain summits but on the drives to and from the trailheads!

  • Nick

    Potter, my friend, thank you, sincerely. But this:

    “The human condition encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living human lives.”

    …is just too big and general for me to understand. My own “human condition” changes from one moment to the next. The “totality” of me — let alone of all humans — is simply too big a concept for my little mind to grasp.

    Thanks for trying, though. 🙂

  • DanO

    I think that Mr. Lydon should listen to this program on repeat or perhaps transcribe it by hand, until it becomes clear how unorganized and uneducated his arguments sound. Why do people’s brains shut down when they feel their long held beliefs are threatened? This program consisted mainly of Mr. Lydon saying, “I hear you. What you are saying makes perfect sense. I can find no fault with your arguments. But I don’t like it. So blah!”

  • Nick

    I’ll say this much for the “new atheism” (sic): it has emboldened non-believers. Last year’s Dennett thread had (in proportion the the quantity of posts, too many of which were by some clown named ‘Nikos’ ;-)) a lower ratio of nontheists to theists than this one — and meeker ones too. Now, I’m not advocating a return to meekness — but the classless rudeness of many of my newly emboldened non-theistic compatriots is starting the rankle the hell out of me.

    “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

    And alienate fewer curious onlookers — and I, of all people, should know it, too!

  • Jon

    Thanks so much for this program. And really, was it not even closer to the originally suggested topic of whether morality is god-given than the program of unhumanly long gestation? I could listen to Hitchens for hours–i.e., unless E.O. Wilson were also available to listen to.

  • herbert browne

    (from orlox) ..”Again, absence of material does not imply existence of non-material prima facie..”-

    I see the ah, “difficulty” in postulating anything non-material to a materialist… much like convincing a line that there may be 3 dimensions. However, I do appreciate the power to make Something out of Nothing… ^..^

  • Martin Brock


    Practically all law and all politics involves normative assumptions. Why shouldn’t I shoot you for any reason or for no reason if you walk onto my land? Why shouldn’t I rape my sister or stone her for adultery or rape her and then stone her for adultery? We likely answer these questions similarly, because we share assumptions about the propriety of individual autonomy and the priority of life over a title to land.

    That I wouldn’t jump off a skyscraper says something about the nature of faith. Faith fills gaps in our understanding of the way things are, but there happen to be a lot of gaps. I’m reasonably certain that jumping off a skyscraper without a BASE rig would kill me, and I probably wouldn’t do it with a BASE rig either, because BASE jumping is far more dangerous than jumping from a plane at 14,000 feet. The difference is only a matter of degree, but both jumps require an element of faith.

    Again, the Iraqi occupation example is more to the point. Any state action of this kind requires tremendous faith that the benefits ultimately outweigh the enormous costs, a faith I don’t share in this case. We don’t have the luxury of recalling the last ten times we occupied Iraq and successfully established a liberal democracy there. Life often is not so simple.

    I identify “God” with the way things really are and don’t presume to tell God how He really is (speaking anthropomorphically). God helps those who understand gravity to avoid jumping from skyscrapers without a BASE rig, and he helps those jumping with a BASE rig a bit less, but something like faith operates in all BASE jumpers regardless, even if they call it something else.

    I haven’t made many Truth claims at all. Faith is not a Truth claim. It is a suspension of disbelief. Skepticism is the refusal to believe without evidence. Faith ideally is a willingness to believe without evidence but not in the face of clearly contrary evidence. Reality leaves plenty of room for faith within these limits and not a little human need for it.

    A simple act of charity requires faith that the person I help isn’t conning me and needs the five bucks more than I do, particularly since I never know how much I’ll ultimately need the five bucks in my pocket right now. People exhibit a little faith in charity regardless, and I think that’s a good thing. This conclusion is not strictly scientific, and I’m not sure it ever could be.

  • JF

    I appreciate the nuance of the views of your guest from Princeton. I’ve often wondered why anthropologists and sociologists aren’t brought into this conversation more often.

    I’m tired of Christopher Hitchens. He makes his living blowing smoke.

  • thomas

    James Wood on Herman Melville:

    Describing Melville’s quarrel with God, he says that Melville “needed to be braced against the flickering horror of his refusal to believe, and then braced against the sour clarity of his refusal entirely to unbelieve.”

  • Sutter

    Martin says: “I identify “God” with the way things really are and don’t presume to tell God how He really is (speaking anthropomorphically). God helps those who understand gravity to avoid jumping from skyscrapers without a BASE rig, and he helps those jumping with a BASE rig a bit less, but something like faith operates in all BASE jumpers regardless, even if they call it something else.”

    You can call this what you like, but as I’ve defined it above, you’re making an empirical Truth claim. You have no evidence for that empirical Truth claim. The absence of evidence need to persuade you to abandon your Truth claim. But it will not persuade me, or other people like me, no matter how many times you repeat that Truth claim. That’s the problem. Except that as I’ve defined things, it doesn’t have to be a problem: So long as you won’t expect me to act differently because of your belief that God helps me do to this or that, it doesn’t matter to me that you hold this belief, and it shouldn’t matter to you that I do not.

  • Sutter

    Eek: I meant to write “The absence of evidence need NOT persuade you to abandon your Truth claim.” Apologies for any confusion.

  • Martin Brock

    “I identify ‘God’ with the way things really are” states my usage of a word. It’s a definition, not a Truth claim. Evidence can contradict a Truth claim, but “‘God’ denotes everything that is and the way it really is” requires no more evidence than “‘chair’ denotes a thing people sit on”. You’re free to use “chair” otherwise, of course, but some other usage is not a Truth claim either.

    Many, many beliefs are not empirical. I’ll say that most beliefs are not empirical. I don’t know that I’ll wake up tomorrow, but I believe I will. I personally expect someday to enter an eternally dreamless sleep, a permanent cessation of consciousness, but other people expect somehow to wake from death. I must doubt this belief, but I can’t prove that a reawakening or reincarnation of someone’s consciousness is impossible, because I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the nature of consciousness myself.

    Why am I a conscious being rather than an unconscious automaton? I can’t answer this question. I only know that I am. The human condition leaves room for this faith, and I see no harm in particular forms of it, but I make no Truth claim here. My expectation of mortality is not a Truth claim either, because I can’t prove to you that my conscious is not somehow reincarnated in another form after my death. I don’t see how memories of this life could survive the disintegration of my neural network, but I’m not sure memories of this life are necessary for a reincarnation of my consciousness.

    When I say “God helps people who understand gravity not to leap off a skyscraper”, I’m simply making an existential statement about the presumably inevitable consequences of leaping off a skyscraper and the related benefits of understanding these consequences. Since I identify “God” with existence itself, inevitable consequences are reasonably called “God’s will”. but this statement involves no Truth claim either. I’m only telling you what I mean by “God’s will.” If it happens, it’s God’s will.

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  • Sutter

    Martin, I’m terribly confused. Our colloquy started because I said that to the extent religious people accepted religious Truth claims beyond the general spiritual belief in Something Greater, I wanted them to explain why they did, and to the extent they did not accept such Truth claims, I was curious why they stuck with religions that asked them to. You said, in effect, that those with faith don’t need to explain themselves. Now we’ve gone back and forth for a couple of days, and here you are saying that you reject empirical and normative Truth claims of the sort I’ve discussed. Indeed, you’re stating a version of the weak faith I’ve been defending all along. So, I welcome your agreement, but I just don’t understand why you thought we disagreed in the first place.

  • mcoverdale

    Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Lydon, whom I admire greatly, I do think that the Hitchens/Glaude hour was as bad as it was–and it was really bad, one of the worst Open Source podcasts yet–in part because of the failure of the moderator to politely but firmly rein in his unruly guest. Mr. Lydon ought never to have allowed Hitchens to continually insult Prof. Glaude as he did.

  • Well, if anyone has heard and other recent Hitchens interviews, this is his modus operandi: Letting loose on clergy with deeply personal attacks. He is an intelectual “schoolyard bully” who uses his oratory skills to belittle those who debate him, a bit of the O’Rilley trick, but with a bit sharper whit, and a different perspective. He should get some counciling for his agressive and rude behavior. As for me, I always enjoy hearing or seeing meglomanical people have near melt downs, under which Mr. Hitchens repeated “I don’t understand you” comments fit in.

    About mcoverdale’s above comment: I don’t think Christopher was wrong to let the two “go at it” for an extended period of time. Firstly it lead to Hitchens getting his panties in a bunch, which is tough to do, he’s usally keeps his cool. Also it’s Christopher Lydon’s style, compared to EVERY other NPR host, as well as all other contemporary radio hosts, he’s less likely to interupt a guest, less likely to keep the show on his own opinions and subjects, and he seems to let it flow, which seems to work rather well. It’s a welcome alternative to the “shock jock” discourse that has become common place in radio. Of course on NPR is “wisper-tone shock jocking” but it’s a style when the directions of a show, statements of the guests, and direction of the conversation must go the way the host wants. This is not the case on Open Source, and I think that’s a postive thing.

  • Martin Brock


    I don’t reject all normative beliefs without empirical evidence, but I don’t accept all of them either. “The Truth” does not describe the ones I do accept in my way of thinking. “Faith” describes them. I “know” (or “observe”) empirical truths. I “accept” faiths. I don’t much believe in immortality of the soul, but Solomon (traditionally the author of Ecclesiastes) doesn’t either, so I’m not outside of theological tradition in this regard. I do accept other faiths.

    I have faith that a certain amount of what we could call “Christian charity” is ultimately beneficial, and I value the Christian tradition for this reason. We can discuss this concept more specifically, but I suppose we don’t radically differ in our usage of “charity”. I’m happy to live in a culture heavily influenced by this tradition rather than certain others. I don’t need to interpret Genesis literally or to defend every act of Moses or even to defend every assertion attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels to reach this conclusion about the tradition. Genesis is very plainly allegorical by design, and people who believe otherwise are simply mistaken. Moses is positively Hitlerian in many respects, and I can dispute Jesus much as Hitchens does, but I don’t get to choose the ideological sea I swim. I’m dropped into this one. So be it.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe that waging war to invade and occupy Iraq is ultimately beneficial on balance. I disputed this faith from the outset, and I believe subsequent events bear out my contrary faith in peace or the strictly defensive application of military force. We can discuss Iraq and imperialism more generally in detail as well, but my point is not to change the subject. My point is that “faith claims” are legion, and “truth claims” are not. Atheists like Hitchens certainly are not faithless, and their zealous faiths can do as much harm as any theistic faith.

    Some people don’t identify “religion” strictly with theism. If “religion” is systematic propriety, then I suppose religion is the root of all “evil”, but then it’s also the root of all “good”. Do you understand that Genesis teaches this lesson? Sure, lots of people will tell you that Genesis I is a literal, historical account of how the heavens and the Earth and its creatures materialized, but these people are very plainly mistaken. The story is an allegory !about! religion (about systems of “good” and “evil”). Man falls when he gets religion! The story is absolutely wonderful, not so much because it’s a great read in isolation but because it’s so marvelously ironic in context.

  • Martin Brock

    I’ll risk the ire of feminists by adding that Man falls when Woman gives Him religion (systematic assertions of “good” and “evil”, lots of rules to follow). There’s an allegory I can’t get behind.

  • hurley
  • orlox

    Igor – you said “…matter…is therefore both an object and an agent at the same time.” If you get time to read that piece, you will find that I agree materialism is not sensible when thought of in this way. Substance outside of time, outside of process, lacks explanatory power. Materialism as process sees agency as dynamic while rendering arbitrary the notion ‘at the same time’.

    We are unique.

    But then, so is everything. Experimental science is only one aspect of materialist methodology. Indeed, observational science is just as important. But sometime in the near future a doctor is going to hand you a drug tailored specifically to your DNA. Or perhaps your wife, or child will need the drug. Upon receiving this chemical salvation, you might be tempted to thank god for the miracle that it addressed your particular prayer in your particular moment of need. Like the lady in the post-tornado trailer park, who thanks god for sparing her, particularly, from the devastation, the implication is that her destroyed neighbors did not share in His concern.

    I could hardly counter the utility of a personal relationship with god, especially with regard to large life issues, if that relationship was not purely imaginative. But just because such a thing is potent and desirable does not, in itself, offer veracity. By you pointing to it as evidence, I am required to ask about those whose personal relationship with god does not translate into a successful marriage, healthy children or fair weather. I expect that there is a spiritual reply, but I doubt that it can support your original contention.

    The expectation that immortal science will someday cure cancer seemingly has nothing to offer to the particular mortal who is dying of it now. Perhaps. But the truth is that the particular mortal would have probably already died from something else that science has already dealt with. And some particular persons down the road will get science for their cancer and push the need for god further down the road. We owe more thanks to Marie Curie than the Holy Spirit.

  • orlox

    Nick – I am not sure quantum loop gravity is easily digestible either, but at least it is testable. And you better brush up on your noncommutative geometry if CERN finds that the Higgs mass is 160 billion electron volts.


  • orlox

    wwarner – The standard model is most certainly not false. Again, it has been tested to a higher precision than countless things you would find unproblematic. It is not complete, it will be superceded, but it is not wrong. Whatever comes next will include the SM and go beyond – possibly including gravity. Superceded is not the same as wrong.

    I think that the science you see as cold, impersonal and heartless is outmoded and no more accurate than Hitchens’ view of religion as bloody-minded and self-serving superstition. Why do we resort to these caricatures? Children and sick people as nuisances is ridiculous on the face of it. The dramatic reduction of child mortality and the explosion of therapeutic treatments is wholly attributable to materialism, often against the teeth of religious opposition.

  • orlox

    herbert – I take great care to understand the perspective of what I critique. I believe I can state non-materialist argumentation with intellectual honesty. I simply will not buy that I am incapable of understanding due to overwhelming prejudice.

    I submit that if there is a case for zero proving the existence of the non-material, you haven’t made it. Nor have you countered my assertion that it points only to the absence of material which is not the same. You have conflated my observation that thoughts and concepts are materially represented in our brains to imply that such concepts have a real existence in the real world. With Capitals No Less. Then claimed that I am being obtuse somehow.

    Make your argument in plain language and I will respond in kind.

  • thomas

    Disregarding, for a moment, Hitchen’s argument, one feels an initial revulsion from his (condescending, bullying) tone. Leo Strauss’s definition of a wise philosopher– one who wishes to avoid cruelty–seems like a possible explanation to this revulsion.

    The quote comes from Devorah Baum’s review of Leora Batnitzky’s Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation. It goes:

    The philosopher, because he is always parasitic on society, occupies the position of someone persecuted. Esoteric writing thus reflects the tension between theory and practice since, Strauss argues, the wise philosopher will wish to avoid cruelty. He will take care, in other words, to propel his interlocutor toward a greater critical stance without imprudently (or cruelly) destroying his worldview. And so, rather than being the elitist or even fascist idea that has enraged so many of his critics, Strauss’s notion of esotericism is simply, according to Batnitzky, an entirely sensible and even generous educational tool.

    Found this passage on the literary blog, This Space, http://this-space.blogspot.com/2007_05_01_archive.html:

  • enhabit

    given that this is an annex of a mega-theological-ROS thread..i found this to be intelligent and i submit for your consideration:

    Is Jesus a myth? TheStar.com – Life – Is Jesus a myth?

    Religious stories are allegorical, not literal, author contends

    May 12, 2007

    Stuart Laidlaw

    Faith and Ethics Reporter

    There are no easy answers in religion, whatever fundamentalists of any stripe might tell you. True spiritual awakening is hard, hard work and will most likely never be achieved, one of Canada’s most famous religious thinkers says.

    But for the sake of all of us, it’s worth trying. And the first step is to realize that the stories in the scriptures are simply not true.

    “Religion generally – particularly North American Christianity – is drowning in an ocean of literalism,” says Tom Harpur, author of the newly released Water Into Wine: An Empowering Vision of the Gospels.

    Harpur challenges readers to spurn the “easy answers” of fundamentalist movements offering salvation to those willing to hand themselves over to the church completely – accepting Jesus as a personal saviour, for instance.

    Instead, he argues, the true message of the Bible, and the Jesus stories in particular, is that there is a divine spirit in all of us that can be drawn out if we work hard enough. By examining the similarities of the Bible stories to those in other faiths, Harpur argues that this is perhaps the true message of all religions.

    “Most of the abuses of religion today arise from taking the text – whether it’s the Q’uran or the Bible or whatever – as literal history,” he says. “Religion doesn’t speak that language.”

    The language of religion, he says, is myth, metaphor and allegory. The stories in scripture are not meant to be seen as history, but as ways to understand the private struggles needed to bring about personal enlightenment.

    Harpur’s latest book is in many ways a follow-up to his bestselling The Pagan Christ, a 2004 book in which he argues that Jesus never existed, but was invented by early gospel writers drawing on pagan myths from many cultures and countries, especially Egypt.

    Paradoxically to many, the former Anglican minister and one-time fundamentalist does not argue that the most sacred stories are fiction to turn people away from religion, but to help them see the real meaning behind the stories.

    “The stories are about you. They’re not about some person 2,000 years ago,” he says.

    This is a key point for Harpur. In many ways, everything hinges on it.

    If Jesus was a real person, and all the stories about him are true, then he is the saviour the fundamentalists put him forward to be. All anyone has to do to be saved is give themselves over to Jesus.

    “You literally do nothing. Somebody else does all the heavy lifting,” says Harpur.

    But if the stories are myths, if Jesus is a purely fictional character, then there’s no one coming to save the faithful. They are forced to save themselves by discovering their inner divinity, Harpur says, rather than looking for a “magician” from 20 centuries ago to do it for them.

    In this light, he says, the stories from the life of Jesus (or Buddha, or any other Christ-like figure found in virtually every religion) are allegorical tales about how to achieve that person salvation.

    Take the story of Jesus healing the lepers. Read literally, this is evidence that Jesus was a God-man, since he could cure the incurable.

    But for Harpur, there’s a much deeper meaning.

    Leprosy itself was a “symbol for man’s need for the healing and cleansing touch of the divine,” which Jesus cures by simply telling the lepers to present themselves to the priests. As they go, they are cleansed of the disease.

    It was by facing up to their ailment, Harpur says, and no longer hiding it, that they were cured.

    “It’s not a case of sitting around waiting for our prayers to be answered, of keeping everything on hold while we wait for some special sign or epiphany to inspire us,” he writes.

    Harpur says this is a much more inspiring message than tales of a god in human flesh saving lives and performing miracles.

    “I believe I am close to the spirit of the early Christians,” he says.

    Harpur believes the gospel writers never meant their stories to be taken literally. Instead, they were an attempt to tell in narrative form the personal and spiritual struggles necessary to achieve individual divinity.

    The struggles Jesus faces, and the parables he tells, are all a lesson in how to handle the moral quandaries and temptations that make each person’s spiritual journey such a challenge, Harpur says.

    “It’s about transformation,” he says, adding that to read the stories literally is to obscure this message.

    That message is needed now more than ever, he says, as we live in an “age of literalism” in which fundamentalists of all faiths seem to be determining the fate of so many.

    Harpur has been the target of much scorn from those who prefer literal interpretations of the Bible, but remains optimistic that their days are numbered.

    He believes, too, that the prodigal generation that turned its back on religion will return if offered a deeper interpretation of gospel stories than provided by fundamentalists.

    “It’s at a peak right now,” he says of fundamentalism. “But it hasn’t got the intellectual depth to sustain itself against the flood of knowledge.”

  • lavenderlists

    i’ll admit that i’ve only been following hitchens for the last 2 years or so, but this is the very first time that i’ve ever heard hitchens flat-out beaten on a few points in an argument. what was surprising, embarrassing, and a bit appalling was the fact that instead of conceding the points, hitchens feigned incomprehension at glaude’s use of language, dug in his heels, threw out a few ad-hominem grenades, and said that he would discuss it no further becase it was all ‘babble’ to him! i’ve never heard hitchens so disingenuous, and some of my respect for him has diminished.

    i felt like the host was inarticulate and out of his element, but that recording is a new hitchens classic in my collection.

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  • nicka

    Has anyone else read David Brooks today? It almost seems as though he listened to this broadcast and started writing where the conversation left off. Here’s the link, but you need a subscription:


  • herbert browne

    Perhaps you’re right, orlox… so let me try, again. You state “I submit that if there is a case for zero proving the existence of the non-material, you haven’t made it. Nor have you countered my assertion that it points only to the absence of material which is not the same..”-

    The number system is symbolic, then… like language… with the limitations that accompany such communications. In this case “proving the existence of the non-material” is an oxymoron. However, as a moronic ox, myself, let me continue. Given the concept that “zero” points to, (if one can assume that “pointing at the Immaterial”, or the “absence of the material” can be successfully accomplished), I’d posit that this “nothingness” is (if “nothingness” can be described as “being something”- in this case, “nothing”) the necessary preamble to material existence. Of course, I’d also argue that “nothing” also Isn’t- ie isn’t reducible, isn’t subject to description in “material” terms (which is the realm in which this language that we share was developed, and in which sphere it is promulgated), that, in essence (or lack thereof) it is “Not this… &/or Not that”… &/or Not Anything. If it is not anything, then it isn’t material… and yet, though I can’t seem to describe it (since its “attributes” are not measureable, or even within a realm that can be compared to any material thing), yet’ by my poor attempts to delineate the ineffable, I am certain that I do allude to a “nothing” that is neither here nor there. In this world of polar extremes, where there exists light & dark, positive & negative, inside & outside, materiality also implies a polar extreme, both less than, & far more intrinsic than the nothing towards which the zero appears to beckon (if null sets may be characterized in this way). I grant you that this is weak stuff… the merest point attempting to predict the intersection of lines… and I’ll leave you to the ineffable joys of victory in a universe in which everything matters (since matter is everything), with my own threadbare security blanket upon which is stitched “nothing matters too”… ^..^

  • Patrick

    Like Hitchens, I’m a confirmed atheist but am certainly not as contemptuous of religious faiths or their adherents. The first poster here, Nick, expounds on the wonderful idea of the melding of all three Abrahamic faiths. Oh that we could live in such a Utopia! To acheive it though, each of the faiths would have to be so radically reformed, (albeit Judaism less so) that to be truly effective, these faith systems would be rendered such shrivelled husks of their former selves as to necessitate the need to be rejected entirely.

    I remember watching a fascinating ‘interfaith’ dialogue not long after 9/11. While members of each of the three faiths talked about how they could come together, lurking in the hearts of each were the doctrinally chauvanist notions that would make, unless they, like I, abandoned their respective faiths entirely, a true comprimise unworkable.

    Christians and Moslems are particularly problematic because while in public, they will espouse in ‘good faith’ their respect and tolerance of the other two, in private, their ruminations will unfortunately, at the crux of it all, prove these dialogues to be ultimately fruitless. Paramount is that for Christians, Christ, and for Moslems, Mohammed, are the final arbiters of faith. Anything else would mean the rejection of Christ’s divinity and the all too static notion that Mohammed is the last and final prophet. And Jews welcoming Christ and more improbably, Mohammed along side their pantheon of prophets?

  • bft

    Language is all a lie, starting with the claim that A is the sound you make when the doctor is examining your throat. We live more or less securely in it nonetheless. A is a triangle with two extended sides. For nothing, much more accurate than 0 is .

  • ajb

    More from ‘Hitch’ – Yes its the same mantra – ‘ A book to plug ‘ – but then I dont bemoan anyone the right to a living ! There are passages here with some freshness. Enjoy , critique , learn and educate .


  • rbecker

    I listen often to Christopher Lydon and must say, just listening online to the Christopher Hitchens interview, the quality of question and exchanges with CH were much below your normally high quality.

    The Princeton professor was an extreme disappointment, creating his own mock arguments quite independent of Hitchens’ objections or main thesis. He also got sensitive when he got an honest answer, why was he not getting through to the guest — he was (in fact) ingratiating and unctuous and ultimately condescending, as if there was no toleration for an anti-religion position. He didn’t appear to get what Hitchens was claiming.

    With an ad hominem argument that spoke volumes, saying Hitchens would “fail” his course (WITHOUT EVEN TAKING IT??) said a great deal more than he intended about his intellectual limits than what is true about an obviously brilliant polemicist. That is, if Hitchens would be failed for challenging the assumptions (and presumed authority) of a professor pushing tolerance, I must say this is eloquent proof the professor was badly outmatched and that religious-types do incline to the dogmatic.

    I hardly agree with all of Hitchens’ anti-theist (not atheistic) points (and not at all with him about the Iraq war) but he has done his homework on the oppressiveness (and diceyness) of organizing God’s word, trying to fix “truths,” and you did not adequately challenge his powerful equation (linking organized religion with some dogma which claims something about the intentions or value of a higher source — let alone the pushy mandate to spread the gospel) by presenting the hash from the professor. Mr. Lydon was not as precise or grounded as he usually is. Hitchens’ core point, that religion is man-made and that its creators were intellectually out of date is not a trivial objection, nor that morality is not dependent on old-time religion.

    Declaring pluralism exists, and everyone necessarily should interpret “sacred” texts (by definition arguing for something beyond human influence), and that some of faith are tolerant or open-minded, speaks only to one form of radically-individualized Protestantism — and bears not at all on Hitchens’ general point there is something arrogant or imperious or even moralistic about the core of 98% of church-based religion. How many religions even allow, let alone encourage individual interpretation or relationship with the godhead?

    When Christopher H. (and really, find out how he calls himself before the show! yikes, he’s the guest) said the professor was talking in a way that he couldn’t respond to or understand, I knew exactly what he meant — the academic was pouring out mushy pap and offering neither agreement or disagreement at a level that encouraged meaningful exchanges.

    The way to argue against Hitchens is to show his terms are not as meaningful or comprehensive as he claims — and he admitted to blurring at times his use of the world religion with faith with God, etc. It’s not a useful argument to say, as Christopher Lydon did, ideologues don’t go to his church or he doesn’t recognize dogmatic leaders in his world (how about the Pope!!).

    If religion is an open-ended field without ideology or dogma or some kind of authoritarian structure that enforces the set of beliefs the faithful hold to be “sacred,” then it’s no more than an intellectual grab bag without any transcendent authority — and all its benefits (music, art, literature) are somewhat co-incidental or secondary.

    Robert Becker, Ph.D.

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