Christopher Hitchens – God Is Not Great

July 6, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, one of the most celebrated social critics of our time, has been a columnist for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate and Free Inquiry. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including God is Not Great (2007), A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001), and Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001). Additionally, he has written prolifically for The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper’s, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He is also a regular television and radio commentator.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Hitchens discusses his new best-selling book God Is Not Great, which is his contribution to the recent slate of best-selling atheist titles. He also explores various strategies for challenging religiosity in our society, the immorality of the Bible, how religion is bad for one’s health, his many recent public debates with believers, and what he calls the war between the West and Islamism. He also comments on the relationship between atheism and intelligence, atheism and great literature, and the need for a “New Enlightenment.”

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 6th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Christopher Hitchens, to talk about his new book, God Is Not Great How Religion Poisons Everything. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m really happy to be joined today on point of inquiry by Christopher Hitchens. One of the world’s leading public intellectuals and social commentators, Christopher Hitchens is an Anglo American writer, a journalist. He’s a literary critic. He’s currently living in Washington, D.C. And he’s been a columnist at Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Nation Slate and our magazine Free Inquiry. He’s especially well known for going after controversial subjects like Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his new book, God Is Not Great. Well, he goes after the biggest subject of them all. God. Christopher Hitchens, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Very nice. Good to have me. 

You’re neither a theologian nor a scientist. The first time I ever got acquainted with you was in the 1990s when I saw you on C-SPAN. You were lecturing on Holmer and now you’re writing a book against God. So the question is that, well, we’ll start off with where do you get off taking on the most important and valuable concept that most people have? Yes, you’ve taken a lot of other sacred cows on Mother Teresa, but shouldn’t someone’s religious beliefs in America be their private business? I mean, isn’t it supposed to be out of the bounds in America to go after someone’s views about the almighty God? 

Well, if they would keep their views to themselves, so to speak, and just meet and talk about virgin birth and resurrections and jihads and the Jewish pray every morning, the Orthodox do that. 

They’re very glad God didn’t make them a woman or a gentile. I don’t have to hear this stuff. I don’t mind at all if I meet someone who has these opinions. I would, of course, disagree with them. And I would think that they have the right to demand respect for their opinions a priori. They have no more right to respect for their opinions than anyone else does. But the thing is, isn’t it, that they won’t leave me out of it? 

I mean, whether it’s trying to have stultifying nonsense taught in the schools under the bogus name of intelligent design. The latest two guys for creationism or stopping stem cell research in the name of God or saying that AIDS may be bad if the Catholics will sometimes concede that the contraceptives would be much worse. The thing keeps on bursting its bounds and ceasing to be a private belief or a matter of conscience or faith becomes what we call religion. That’s to say people who think that God is telling them what to do and telling them how to tell others how to behave. So I argue in my in my book that if it could be kept private, then I’d be perfectly happy with it. But as soon as that line is crossed, it ceases to be a difference of opinion and becomes more than justified. 

Right. You’re writing this to engage in that fight. You want to diminish the role of religion in the public square. You’re fine if they keep it private. But the fact that they’re not is what gets your hackles up. Do you really think that Christians and Muslims and Jews and other faith needs to use Dawkins term? Are they gonna pick up your book and have their irrational religiosity jostled from them? Or are you just writing this for atheists? People are gonna laugh and enjoy your great writing. Then just put the book on their shelf and feel superior to the religious neighbor. 

Well, I had two motives in writing the book, two hopes, in fact. One was, as you say, to put some heart into what is emerging as a very fast growing movement in the United States. That’s to say people not necessarily atheist, but skeptical point of inquiry. And the success of your show, for example, is one of the indices of this. It’s less and less a private, shamed, unpopular belief and more and more of what affirmed what. 

I wanted to help this process along in the footsteps of my Titanic predecessors, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Venison, Sam Harris, and actually to write a book that wasn’t just the specialists. You don’t have to be a scientist to read my book. But the first thing the second was I hope to take the war to the enemy. And I read my book tour so that it took me through the South largely, and that I had a debate with a believer or a representative of belief at every stop, which I was able to do. And I was extremely pleased to read in The Wall Street Journal recently who were kind enough to run an article about the success of the book that in the Bible Belt bookstores, the bookstore proprietors report that the book is flying off the shelves of what they call a know your enemy basis. In other words, the faithful. I think at a point now in America where they realize they can’t have it all their own way anymore, they’d better engage because there’s a change in the guys and the people who’ve had enough of being coerced and lectured by them. 

You just mentioned the Wall Street Journal article. It’s reported in a couple of places in the media that your publisher thought your book was originally just going to be moderately successful. Its first printing was only something like 30000 copies, but now it’s sold much more than that. It’s made its way onto the number one spot in The New York Times bestsellers list. What did that surprise you and to does this massive success of the book tell you that everyone’s really engaged in this fight, the science versus religion fight as Dawkins and Harris and you and Danny De framed it? 

Well, not to be a modest, but yes, it did briefly hit number one on the Times bestseller list, which is very high on that list for some time. It’s been number one in Canada and quite close to number one in in England and Ireland and Australia and New Zealand as well. I understand. But now uncovering myself with the blushes, because this is not a thing just because of my blue eyes. It is because of a willingness among nonbelievers to show support in that way for authors who speak for them. And I think also an awareness among believers that they are involved in an argument. I mean, the thing that’s gratified me the most has been the reception of the religious press. I was invited on the Christian Nanji Today website, for example, for an exchange that went on for six weeks with one of our champions, Delta Douglas Wilson. I was reviewed by Michael Novak, who you’ll probably know as a very serious conservative Catholic in the National Review. And he said, look, these points of Hitchens made can’t just be laughed off. These are criticisms we have to learn to take seriously. And that’s music to my ears, because it means battle has been joined and that the complacency of those who think that everyone in America is an uncritical, faith based type can be shown to be false. 

So you don’t think all religious people are non-thinking believers in nonsense? You might think it’s nonsense, but people have reasons for the belief, and that’s what you’re engaging in. 

Well, I don’t know if I go as far to say they do have reasons for that belief, because I, I, I’d have to say this whole tour with a debate, with some kind of believer or a Baptist preacher or a rabbi or a Catholic minister, almost every stop. I haven’t yet heard a single new argument. The female feel stuff keeps on coming up, most notably. Where would we get our morals from if it wasn’t for the fear of a heavenly dictatorship? I mean, the stupidest old arguments trotted out as if they were new. But the fact that people are willing to debate and to do this in front of large and skeptical and humorous audiences is, I think, a good sign. And I I will say that I haven’t had any real rudeness or abuse. Not that I would care or or any attempts to shut me down except an attempt to ban the book in Malaysia. And I suppose one one radio station in North Carolina that having broadcast everything I’ve had to say, did say that I was going to hell, but I could care less about Jim Underdown. 

I wanna talk to you about actually what you say in the book. But just one more question about the Guard is not great phenomenon before we get to know what you’re writing in the book. There’s been a lot of times in history, in American history when people ride and speak out against religion. Mark Twain, Ingersoll, of course, John Dewey and other humanists at the turn of the last century, Bertrand Russell here and in the UK. But never has there been this kind of public attention. Do you think that this rather than just being a bestselling phenomenon. Is it really helping crystallize a movement? In other words, is religion now finally on its way out because of this phenomenon? 

I think religion is ineradicable. I think it is part of our makeup. Not all of us, but of a large number of people who can be said that they have an innate wish to believe, an innate wish to believe they are the center of the universe. But inborn fear of death, to which religion caters very cleverly, rather cynically, and other things that predispose people towards the religious view of the world. But that world view has now been so comprehensively subverted by discoveries in psychology, in biology and in physics that it will never be possible to assert faith in quite the simple minded, absolutist way that it used to be possible to do. And I think further speaking again of the zygotes that since the horrifying assault on civil society mounted by jihadists, by faith based murderers and theocrats, and given the willingness of some religious forces still to contest the findings of Darwin and Einstein, a large number of people in the academy and elsewhere have decided that they’ll have to come out into the arena and defend science and reason from the assault upon it. 

Jim Underdown to see you on Chris Matthews last week on Hardball against Sharpton. It was great. It was really funny and engaging, but there was also something farcical about it. Middle America turns on the show. I imagine they’re looking at this Englishman in sunglasses, speaking funny quips against the. I believe it must be really surreal to them. Is this what you had in mind when you wrote the book, when you imagined getting out there on a on a book tour? Is this all there is for it? 

Well, no. It is my second debate with the Reverend Sharpton, who, of course, is is always willing to come out to defend not religion, as it happens, who he knows as much about that as he does about the dark side of the moon or any other topic, but at least to give himself a chance to read it public nonetheless. Maybe my line is I’ll take all comers, and that’s included up till now. A Buddhist nun in Florida, because some people say Buddhism is really a religion, but it is kind of a faith. Several Baptist ministers, several rabbis and many, many others in crossbench, including in the fall in Washington, out of fear. McGrath, who is believed by the Episcopalian Anglican community to be their senior theologian. So we’ll see. We haven’t started yet. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of God is Not Great How Religion Poisons Everything Through our website. Point of inquiry dot org. Christopher Hitchens. Let’s finally get to some of the specifics of the book. You say in the book that the New Testament is worse than the Old Testament. To me, Jesus has taken a calming the surround the mount, his litany of rewards and punishments. It’s always seems rotten to me, immoral. But everybody says, you know, leave out the supernaturalism. At least Jesus said moral things. 

Yes. A great hero of mine. Well, I try not to have heroes, but at what cost? Obviously can’t avoid using the word someone whom I have a great admiration. Thomas Jefferson, whose biographer I did in fact produce a Bible with the supernatural and magical and the rational bits cut out with a razorblade, which he said left us with moral teachings. I think that’s far too naive. I quote C.S. Lewis, in fact, against the Christians here by citing one of the very few honest and intelligent things he ever said. He said that the teachings of Jesus were actually insane unless you made the assumption that he was the son of God. So this makes it harder for people to separate the supernatural, the magical from the moral, because if a preacher goes around saying, leave your family, take no thought for the morrow, give no thought to thrift or investment or clothing or your children, give everything up and follow me. That’s only moral. If you think that the world is about to come to an end and that this preacher knows what to do when that happens. If you don’t make that assumption, then the teaching isn’t moral at all. I’d further add I do add in the book that follows the test of atrocity and murder and racism and slavery. All these things, by the way, being recommended, not condemned. The Old Testament still doesn’t mention hell. There’s no punishment of the dead, let alone eternal torture of the dead in the Old Testament. It’s only when you get gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the shepherd of the sheep, that the idea is introduced, that if you don’t accept his mild and adorable message, you’re going to be very sorry. This is wickedness, of course, of the highest order. Incidentally, I remember one of my first reactions when I was quite small to the teaching of Christianity was I hate having to call myself a sheep. What does it say of a religion that it actually describes its own followers as if they were a flock? And why do you shepherds look after sheep? Not because they like them, though. Actually, some shepherds, it seems like them far too much. But in order to first fleece them and then kill them, it’s actually a perfect analogy of what the relationship of religion to its credulous believers really is. 

Tell me how religion is bad for your health. 

It’s bad for your physical and mental health. In my opinion, I do it in reverse order for mental health. It’s very important to have a wholesome attitude towards sexuality, all of religions, preachings of the opposite kind. They regard the sexual instinct as in a sense, a curse may be necessary for reproduction. But that said something to be repressed, especially in women and viewed with disgust and alarm. This has made many, many, many people miserable and unhealthy for hundreds and thousands of years. I think genital mutilation is not good for your physical health. That is outrageous to practice mutilation on people who aren’t old enough to elect for the surgery. If there’s going to be genital mutilation, circumcision, as it’s sometimes called, and it should be embarked upon voluntarily by grown ups. It’s child abuse to do it any other way. Those are just two salient example. They both have to do, of course, with the sexual terror of which religion is an example. 

So if everyone became more sex positive, let’s say religion changed just so that everyone became a little more sex positive. Would you have as big an issue with people believing other things that are untrue, like gods in the universe and he’s looking out for you? 

That wouldn’t make that argument any more intelligent. That caters to something else. Probably isn’t good for us. While we’re at it, I mean, is the belief that we are the center of the universe and that the stars and the galaxies and the Navy lie operate with us in mind, were designed with us in mind, is, of course, an appeal to our solipsism, to ourselves centredness. It’s the same stupidity. And I think stupidity is not harmless because it’s so easily exploited. That leads people to consult their astrological shots. It’s essentially morally the same. Jim Underdown. 

Right. My last question was getting it. You wear your ires coming from is it just that people believe stuff you think is nonsense or the fact that they think nonsense is so bad for society? I think you just said the latter is the case. 

Yes, I think what because the movie opens me to write Amirli satirical book at someone late and say, like Julia Sweeney, the other satirical broadcast seen this. These are the weird things these people actually believe. This is ironic and satirical treatment. Why not? You know, it’s amusing. If you’re a good comedian or even a halfway good comedian, it’s a target rich environment. That would be enough in one way if it were not for the very deadly threat the religion poses to us. I mean, just look, for example, at what the parties of God are doing to to reduce Iraq to the level of an Afghanistan or a Somalia. The last two countries where the parties have got to have things all their own way or reflect on the messianic mullahs who think that the 12th imam is about to reveal himself and bring the world to an end. And who for an insurance policy are requiring apocalyptic weaponry. That’s a very unsettling conclusion. Or the disease and deranged Jewish settlers on the West Bank of the River Jordan who think that by stealing other people’s land and property, they can bring on their version of the Messiah and their friends in America. 

The Christian right, who, of course, believe in the bodily rapture of believers living the rest of us to welter in hell who are Jew baiters and racists. The old tradition and who will not give up the stupid idea that they can legislate morality and their teaching in schools and destroy the science class in their own interests, that it’s really time for a fight back against this kind of nonsense and wickedness. 

Speaking of the fight back against that wickedness, I’ve heard a lot of people over the years rail against, you know, religious belief and why it’s bad. But I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about the strategy to confront death. You just touched on it a little. And it’s the fight. I’ve heard you speak kind of against religion a number of times. I heard you in D.C. years ago. Give a keynote. No exaggeration is still the best talk, the most inspiring thing I’ve ever heard anyone give publicly like that. And saying so. Makes me sound really unbiased in this interview, but. Well, they kind of do anyway. But during this talk, you referred to secular humanist skeptics of religion, people who believe that what religious believers believe is nonsense and destructive, while that those of us who believe that are a cognitive elite. You said of secular humanist, something like that. They’re the last, best hope for humankind. So speaking about strategy, do you think that sales pitch is going to work? Jim Underdown mean, just draw an analogy, put a finer point on the question, the gay and lesbian movement, and they’re trying to change everyone’s minds about it being all right to be gay. But they’re not also making the argument that being gay is better than being straight. But Dawkins and you and Sam Harris and others do actually say being an atheist is better than being religious, even if I agree. Here’s the question. If we atheists and secular humanists are a cognitive elite, does it help us to rub everybody’s nose in it? 

Well, I say in my book that I have a big disagreement with great respect with Professors Dawkins and Dannette for their nomination of the word bright as the framework for an atheist. I think that that does run the risk of making people feel that we are talking down to them, that you have to be smart to be an unbeliever. But early, stupid people could possibly believe any of this. And my objection is not just tactical. It’s my absolute conviction that a person of absolutely average intelligence and education is capable of seeing through the claims made by priests and rabbis and mullahs and always has been. And in one of my closing chapters, I. I give up the history of the unsung heroes of our movement, the people who never were able to believe the nonsense that they were inculcated with. That said, I will say it doesn’t necessarily apply to the individuals concerned because after all. Alfred Russell Wallace, who did a great job of Darwin’s work for him, indeed is thought by many people to have done more work than Darwin did on the. This was a spiritual leader. 

Yeah, he believed in the paranormal and spent a great part of his career studying the paranormal. 

Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian secularist who discovered oxygen and was a great defender of the American Revolution and whose laboratory was smashed by a reactionary Christian mob in Britain at the end of the 18th century. Believing in the phlogiston theory over, Newton seems to have some appalled interest in that appalling to interest in alchemy or some such nonsense. It’s it’s there’s no protection offered by a high IQ or high level of culture in education against stupidity and illusions, whereas with the religious rather condescendingly called the simple folk are perfectly capable of seeing when they’re being lied to. 

And to backtrack a little, you’re one of the most outspoken secularists. And you’re also one of the most outspoken advocates against Islam out there. You’re advocating a war of ideas, maybe even an actual war on Islamism. How do you explain the fact that more secularists haven’t joined up with you, that more secularists don’t agree with you? I guess I’m asking you to comment on the seeming lack of courage among the secular left. 

Well, there are two forms of which that takes. And I don’t accuse my opponents of lack of courage. I ought to say the first is that many of those who who would not disagree with me when I say know that there should be a war with Islam. But this is a war with Islamism. Whether we want to or not, it’s been declared on us that we must win. It would go on to say, well, that’s all very well, but I don’t want it putting me in the same camp as George Bush, who’s a half baked Christian fundamentalist in his own right. You see, I think that that’s just confusing apples and oranges. And it doesn’t really matter whether the president of the United States is or is not a Methodist or or a believer in God, that our society would still be under the same level of attack by jihadism. But I do understand that some people are very, very dubious about any war with which this president or his party involved. Further to the fringe, there are people, unfortunately, some of whom would have called themselves leftist until recently or are thought of by others as being left wing, who have run away with the stupid idea that because Islam is a third world religion, in some ways it claims to be universal. Of course, that is in practice the religion of the third world, that the brown skin. It must have something in common with some sort of liberation theology. It must be to do with protests and grievances by the poor in, let’s say, Gaza or Kashmir. All these people need to do is look at how al-Qaeda’s first attack was not on the United States or even England, but on India. Another great multicultural, secular democracy where the majority viewpoint is still Hindu. That’s considered to be the most odious possible heresy by Islamic extremists. And they’d be making war on India along with their making war. And I still should get over this idea that Islamism is in any sense a protest against real conditions of injustice. It isn’t the answer to the problems of poverty and unemployment. It is. It is what produces poverty and ignorance and unemployment. 

Switching gears, Christopher. I kind of see you as different than Dawkins and Harris and and Dennett’s in the following way. And I want to ask you a question about it. Most of the people who listen to point of inquiry and who love the four of you, the four horsemen of the counter apocalypse. They read science, tax journals, magazine articles. But I’m talking about the great literature, the Western canon. As I mentioned really quickly, the beginning of our conversation when I first heard you, you were talking and debating about Homer. So it’s kind of like you’re an interloper here among the dyed in the wool secularists who themselves tend to be science fans, maybe at the exclusion of literature. Maybe scientistic rather than literary. So even though you don’t talk about in your book, I think you have opinions about it. What are they missing? Those science secular types that aren’t coming at religion, from your perspective? 

Well, there is an argument made by not just by believers, but by people who are sympathetic to believers without being believers themselves. That says the following atheists them may well be logically and rationally defensible, even true if that were true abuse. But it’s a bit arid. It’s a bit dry. It’s a bit soulless, if you like. What about the transcendent? What about the human need for something a bit beyond the material world? See, what I want to argue this point is that we have thanks partly to science. Without a perfectly good reply to that, if you want to look at something that’s marvelous and awe inspiring, you take a look through the Hubble telescope and see the incredible the majesty and mystery that’s being revealed that way. You can’t do that and then be impressed by the burning bush. We do have a need for the transcendent. But that doesn’t mean it’s all we have a need for the supernatural. If you want to listen to a symphony at sunset and look out at the beauties of nature from a mountaintop, then you should. And you should read the poets and essayists and lovers of nature and of the natural order who make that possible and enjoyable for you. We want all this to be part of our critique. If you want to consider important moral questions and dilemmas that can never really be quite solved, and why not try some of the plays or Sophocles or the work of George Eliot is one of the strong nominees or Dostoyevsky or even Kafka. Shakespeare. There’s much more. Tension and drama and ethnic and moral discussion to be had from these and from any of these Bronze Age hateful texts. 

Do you think taking that approach puts more meat on the bones of Athie ism, that it’s not just science decrying nonsense belief, but in other words, Kenda Humanities Flash Athie is about a few of them is by definition something that you don’t believe. 

It’s based on a negation. It’s a necessary negation, but not a sufficient one to simply say people won’t start to grow up or develop until they can get rid of this belief that comes to the childhood of our species. But that’s only, as I say, necessary, not a sufficient condition. It doesn’t tell you anything else about what an atheist might be like. Indeed, an atheist could be a nihilist, could be a sadist, could be a fascist, though most fascists were believers. Could be stoners, too. It doesn’t guarantee anything. However, there is a very rich music and literature and philosophy. That’s the beauty of science, the wonder of nature, of the natural world, the extraordinary investigations that we’re able to make into our own nature by decoding our own DNA and the double helix that is at the core of it. Or if you prefer to look into the heavens and see what’s really happening, as opposed to the mythical nonsense that we’ve been told comes from the ethereal regions. 

Before we finish up, I want to talk about where you finish up on the book, and that’s calling for a new enlightenment. I really see your book as offering affirmative alternatives to religion. It’s not just tearing it down. Your previous comment just now is on that point. But do you think that the general public gets that? That’s one of the thrusts of your book. It’s entitled God is Not Great. Doesn’t seem to be offering, on the face of it, an alternative to religion. It’s just kind of poking at religion. 

Well, I have to accept that criticism, I think. But I do say that that we who have kept alive have tried to pass on the the beautiful and witty and intelligent teachings of findings of the writings of Lucretius and Spinoza and Justice and Paine and Hume and Einstein and look anybody in the eye and say that we have a better offer for the life of the mind and for the emotion than any religion can possibly hope to propose. 

Do you think that we have to revise any of the Enlightenment project? You know, maybe the faith in the perfectibility of man or maybe the optimism that enlightenment thinkers have in the power of reason to fix all our problems? You conclude the book by calling for a new enlightenment. So not in the old enlightenment is not good enough. 

Well, you know what? I make you a confession. I did manage to propose everything is very new. The old enlightenment is good enough for me or if it’s ours and descendants. There’s plenty still to study in what Einstein wrote or what Hume said. I don’t think we’re likely to improve it as the perfectibility. I don’t think there was any need at all to replace religion’s promises of that sort. Religion is utopianism. I don’t think the materialism will be utopian at all. 

But even enlightenment philosophers like Detro had a certain kind of utopianism when they said, you know, I don’t live for heaven, but I live for my posterity. I’m making the world a better place. That’s something I can sink my teeth into. I can live for. You go over there, you live for heaven. 

Yes, but a religious person can say they tried to make the world a better place to some. Some of them are, in fact motivated to do that. So this early replaces the old arguments in a different form. 

So last question. All this talk about being positive, not just attacking religion, but you offered the Enlightenment as a viable alternative. Why don’t you end by telling your favorite religious joke on on a positive note here? 

Well, in my mind, empty is, of course. I know, I know, I know a lot of good religious. Well, aren’t you religious jokes. But I think I’ll just have to say that. Religion is funny enough when I said it’s a joke in itself. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of Inquiry, Christopher Hitchens. 

No, no, my honor. 

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