Thoughts on Hitch

December 18, 2011

Richard Dawkins helped me understand why religion is incorrect. Christopher Hitchens helped me understand why it is evil. If Dawkins was my motivation to finally declare myself atheist, Hitchens was my inspiration to enter the fight against religion’s dehumanizing effects with vigor.

Millions of words have been written this weekend in memory of Christopher Hitchens, who died Friday following a long fight with esophageal cancer. One of the original “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, Hitchens, along with Dawkins and fellow authors Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, launched a veritable revolution among the godless. Their popular books brilliantly expressed centuries of atheist thinking in a way that was not only accessible, but also catalyzing for members of the most reviled minority in America. Hitchens’ work is one of the primary reasons millions of atheists are mad as hell, and not taking it anymore.

Hitch’s contribution, “God Is Not Great” was the second of the four books I read. At the start of the book, I still harbored the ex-believer’s common warmness toward religious stories — Jesus seemed like a pretty nice guy, and the Bible still seemed to contain much that was commendable, even if I didn’t believe it was true. By the end of “God Is Not Great,” I wanted to punch JC in the face. He laid bare, in a single volume, the moral horror that religion entails when it places dogma over human needs (which is to say, always).

Quite apart from his work on behalf of rationality, the thing I’ll miss most is Hitch’s inimitable writing style. He was an absolute master of the high-brow put-down. In a time when smug cleverness is often mistaken for wit, Hitch showed what the latter really meant, simultaneously delivering both seriousness and humor that gave an intimidating glimpse into the mind of what must have been one of the most well read people alive. Even if he was writing on a subject about which I knew little, I devoured his columns just for the pleasure of reading some of the best writing on the planet.

We’ll miss you, Hitch. There’s not another like you.

The atheist’s comfort

August 10, 2010

It’s a common canard that atheists are miserable because they have nowhere to turn in times of adversity. When I first left belief behind, a feeling of helplessness did engulf me at times of great stress – when we worried something was wrong during my wife’s first pregnancy, or when I hit bone-rattling turbulence on a flight that felt like it would never end. There was a sense of being “out there,” exposed, with no celestial safety net to call out to.

But with the benefit of a little time and distance, I realize the “comfort” I derived from religion was a cold comfort indeed. The religious are consistently taught that nothing happens without a reason, that everything is ordained by their deity. “God’s plan” — that most pernicious of well-intentioned English phrases — is cavalierly whipped out when believers are at their lowest to justify and rationalize their suffering. Whatever horror befalls us, our loved ones, or even a complete stranger, we’re assured that, although we can’t know the reason, it’s all part of “God’s plan.” And that’s the best comfort religion can give us. To the question “why?”, religion answers “because Dad said so.” What we don’t accept as adequate human parenting, many gladly accept from a supposedly omnipotent deity and his prophets.

Atheist pugulist extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens, currently undergoing treatment for esophogeal cancer, has a different answer to “why?” — Why not? In a recent post at Vanity Fair, Hitchens reflects on finding himself a new citizen of “the sick country.” In a paragraph that none other could write, Hitchens lays out a view of adversity that should inspire nonbelievers everywhere:

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

That last sentence is worth repeating, and making a personal mantra:

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

This is humility. This is a proper understanding of one’s place in the universe. And it is comforting in a most profound way. Adversity strikes us all in one fashion or another. People die. Disasters happen. Jobs evaporate. In the face of such trials, are we to demand that our particular suffering be explained and justified, even by a fairy in the sky, when all suffer in some way? Or do we think beyond ourselves and view our plight from the perspective of the larger world? Do we rage against an unseen father figure, anguishing over why he would allow bad things to befall us? Or do accept that bad comes to all, and that we’re but one small part of that “all”? In a strange way, perhaps one of the most comforting thoughts we can have is best expressed by a crude bumper sticker — “shit happens.”

Communicating Nonbelief

July 11, 2010

I’ve read at least one report that a recurrent theme at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 (hosted by famous debunker The Amazing Randi) has been R-E-S-P-E-C-T — that is, of skeptics for believers. What I read doesn’t sound like accommodationism, the argument that skeptics (particularly scientists) need to “accommodate” the incorrect beliefs of the religious by acknowledging that they may have some value in truth-seeking. Instead, it sounds like a push to consider how skeptics communicate their skepticism to the wider world. Considering that one of the sources is Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, and that Phil pulls no punches in the fight against irrationality, I have no doubt he wasn’t advocating squishiness of ideas.

How we communicate disbelief is a complicated question, and one without a single answer. There are times when irrational thinking becomes so dangerous, or so galling, that a fire-breathing response of the type frequently served up by PZ Myers at Pharyngula is wholly appropriate. On the other hand, we Everyday Atheists who have neither a famous blog nor book on which to rely, and who must live cheek-to-jowl with believers (often in our own families), typically don’t have the luxury of verbally burning down the churches if we want to maintain any semblance of cordial relations (or un-slashed tires, in my neighborhood).

When considering how to communicate my nonbelief in a given situation, I find two considerations compelling. First, from a purely humanistic ethical perspective, how would I want or expect to be treated by somehow who vehemently disagreed with me? Despite how shoddily believers often treat atheists, I don’t think it’s appropriate to argue that “they started it” when loading the guns. We can be better than that, and when we are, I do believe it gets noticed by those who are undecided on the matter.

Second, I consider what I’m trying to accomplish with the exchange. If my goal is persuasion or education (the two most common), a calm, friendly demeanor helps prevent my audience’s defenses from instantly going on red alert. It’s far too easy to dismiss someone out of hand when he or she starts off with name calling or dismissive statements (the one thing I’d fault the great Christopher Hitchens for – an overuse of the word “nonsense”). That’s not to suggest tempering one’s views or holding back in destroying bad arguments. I’d simply observe that you can prove someone is a dissembling asshole without saying it. Smile whilst smiting. After all, reality is on our side.

God cannot survive apart from religion

January 10, 2009

In May 2007, Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, debated activist and Christian minister Al Sharpton at the New York Public Library (transcript here, video here [scroll down to May 7, 2007]).  Throughout the debate, Sharpton challenged Hitchens on the basis that Hitchens was criticizing religion and its associated beliefs, but not the existence of God itself.  The following exchange is representative of this line of discussion:

AL SHARPTON: I think you probably had a bad Sunday school teacher, (laughter) because a lot of what you’re saying is based on dogma and has nothing to do with one’s belief in a supreme being. You’re discussing again religions, dogmas, denominations, not the existence or nonexistence of God. . . . But I think that, again, the basic core question of God goes way beyond any example, no matter how witty or humorous, of those that come in God’s name because it is the dictates of denominations or organized religious groups that tell you what to eat and what to wear and who to sleep with and all of that—that has nothing to do with the existence of an order to the universe that is clear and evident. That science, I think, confirms that it evolved from somewhere—that’s how I relate to God.

 * * *

I think you’re confusing the misuse of religion with the existence of God. There are those that have no religious affiliations at all that believe in God. There are people that don’t deal with organized church at all that still believe in God, so when you say “God is not great,” let’s not then debate “organized religion is not great,” or “some that have exploited organized religion is not great.” You, in the title of your book—and I have had a chance to go through your book—attack God, not those that express that they are therefore standing in God’s place or representing God.

Hitchens held his own (no surprise), but a point he never made forcefully enough can be stated simply: “If a person may experience and know God outside of religion, how does that person know anything about the nature or attributes of that God?”  It is only through the “religions, dogmas, denominations” Sharpton mentions that people claim to know anything about God: what he’s like, what he wants people to do and not do (i.e., morality), what rewards or punishments await humanity, what happens after death, etc.  We have a word for people who believe God reveals his will directly to them outside of a religion: schizophrenic.  At the very least, a person without a religion must admit that they are going by what they “feel” to be right, which is the same as admitting they’re making it up.

It is for this reason that criticism of individual religions and religious beliefs is important and valid.  Atheists and other freethinkers must never yield when, having laid bare the nonexistent foundations of particular beliefs, religious people accuse them of dealing only with a “caricature” of God (the old man in the clouds) and not with the real, transcendant deity.  Theologians love to make this argument in a condescending tone, particularly if they are not biblical literalists.  “Silly atheist,” they say, “God is so much bigger than any religion mediated by fallible humans can convey.”  Nonsense.  If God is more than what religions say, how do they know what that “more” is?  They don’t, and can’t, without just making it up.  Take down a religion, and you take down its god.