A Different Argument
An Interview with Christopher Hitchens
Perhaps the best thing Jerry Falwell ever did was die so that Christopher Hitchens could go on TV and spit on his grave. "Man of God," "Religious Warrior," "Inspiration" read the headlines. "Wrong," said Hitchens. "Fraud," "Crook," "Conscious Charlatan." Had it only been one man's counterstrike against the wave of piety that invariably greets the death of a public figure, it might've simply made for good TV. But Hitchens's antireverence for Falwell, a man who embodied the American marriage of church and state more than any other, landed as a kind of cluster bomb in the war between reason and religion. These interviews touched a nerve, and not just the kind that gets people clicking on YouTube.
It was hardly the first time Hitchens, a vocal "antitheist" for many years, had aimed a gob of spit at the forces of the Lord, but it was probably the most visible. And it came at a propitious time—one can't but mention—for Hitchens's new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The book encapsulates the themes Hitchens treats in his essays, and does so methodically and unsparingly but never glibly. "The argument with faith," he writes, "is the foundation and origin of all arguments." It's also clearly the subject on which this most voluble essayist has the most to say.
And people are listening. In the wake of Hitchens's Falwell dyslogies, God Is Not Great sold out its entire print run. For weeks, not a single copy was available at a single Seattle bookstore. When I mentioned this state of affairs to Hitchens, on the phone from New York, he was ambivalent.
THE STRANGER: I have to confess I haven't finished reading the book because until yesterday, there was not a single copy of it available in all of Seattle, or I think, in all of the United States.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I never know whether I'm glad to hear this or not.
I went to three different places looking for it. They all said entire print run had sold out.
Yes, well, as I said, that's why I'm never sure whether I'm furious or whether I should feel gratified. [The publishers] have reprinted it several times already. And I know that there's still demand, and unslaked at that. But I don't know whether if you go and ask twice, if they get turned down.
People seem to be attributing the interest in this book to all the TV appearances that you've made in the last couple weeks, following Falwell's death, and the widely seen debate between you and Al Sharpton.
No, I don't—I sort of know that's not true. I wouldn't be against it being true, but I don't think it is. I think it's because of the subject. And the zeitgeist. And of course, the testament that Falwell is part of that, and Sharpton.
The great irony is that in light of a book like yours the Falwell death seems sort of... providential.
Well, that certainly is another conclusion I want to resist. I was—if this doesn't sound conceited of me to tell you, but who else can if don't?—I was drawing really big crowds in the South several days before the Falwell thing hit. I was in, I think, North Carolina, when it happened, or Georgia—I can't remember now. But we were really on some kind of roll down there, partly because I think a lot of people want to demonstrate that they're not locked in with people like that. My speculation is this has been true since the scandal with the Schiavo business. I mean, the sheer embarrassment of that may have been critical. And also the repeated feat of this crazed attempt to teach creationism in the schools.
Right. Since the Bush administration has generally been discredited even by the people who voted for them, and they rode in on the back of Christianity, there has been a general sense that, well, maybe it's time to actually consider the question.
No, you know, I think you must be right, because we had a debate at every stop, as I hoped to at all of them. I debated Marvin Olasky when I was in Texas. He was the originator of the "faith-based initiative." And all I can say is, I think you can view the debate and make up your own mind, but at the LBJ Library in Austin he seemed to be very much on the defensive. I thought he was distinctly apologetic and tentative. You wouldn't expect that of someone who thought there was a trial of faith going on.
I really enjoyed your debate with Al Sharpton. It was a great spectacle, although I don't know how much of a debate it ended up being.
I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped, because he wouldn't come out to play. And for that reason, I found I was a bit soft on him, frankly. I mean, there were things I could have said, but he was partly my invited guest. But I didn't say, "Well, look, you've made your whole career as a fucking demagogue," because he kindly agreed to come, and I felt a bit awkward. But he was so reluctant that I didn't feel like I hit him properly.
Well, when a priest refuses to acknowledge that the Bible is part of what he's defending, as Sharpton did, repeatedly, that's a little strange.
It's very strange.
His final word in defense of the existence of god—the same one uttered by many Christians—was the idea that without God there can be no human morality, or even any human ethics, without the concept of an ideal higher power to both govern it and serve as its model. I know you address it in the book and in the debate, but does it surprise you how persistent this line of reasoning is?
Even among some circles of secular people, that's sort of sometimes argued. Or a version of it is argued. Very often, for example, they bring up Dr. King. Where would civil rights be without God? I have a strong answer to that—it's in the book, actually. But I've strengthened it in the course of the tour as well. I'll say well, you know, the case for civil rights was complete; it had been made by secularists long before Dr. King started his excellent preaching. Clearly, the guys who actually organized the March on Washington, whose idea it was, his confreres, like Bayard Rustin, the socialist, and Philip Randolph, the union leader, were never credited. They're left out of the record even by the left. And you know, at the time, the FBI hadn't even arrived. So it's important to correct that record, and it's a kind of, I think, condescending white liberal assumption that black people respond best to preaching that has licensed, since then, frauds and charlatans and sort of black Falwells, like Sharpton, who get away with murder because they got the word Reverend in front their names. And it's sort of subconsciously, "Well, that's what black people got for trying." This is very damaging, and a betrayal of secular principles. And there're a lot of very good black secularists, still, that get unjustly overlooked.
For those of us who follow your work closely, God is Not Great seems not only to be the book that you were supposed to write for a long time but also the book you've sort of always been writing.
Do you feel like you were summarizing yourself?
Yes. A friend of mine, whom I'd given an interview—"given," that sounds grand—but anyway, some years ago, where I was asked would I ever think of writing a book about secularism. And I can't now remember the date, but I said, "No, really, no, because the case has already been made much better, you know? It's already complete; it doesn't need another book." I must have thought that was true at the time I said it, I think. Since September the 11th particularly and the revival of brute religiosity around the place and the failure of faith to having anything useful to say is a strong motivation.
Absolutely. It does seem like secularism vs. religion is the subject now, in much the same way that you talked about Orwell being right about the three great subjects in the 20th century—totalitarianism, socialism, and America.
I suppose, actually, the best way of saying it would be that I did realize on the day that I was trapped in your great state, in Walla Walla, in fact, on September the 11th, that this or versions of it were going to be accepted for the rest of my life and possibly my children's lives. I've certainly had no reason since to reconsider that view.
In the introduction, you talk about the larger "we" of non-believers, and you suggest that secularists have taken or are willing to take another evolutionary step, and the believers are clinging to yesterday's reality. Do you feel that's true that we're evolving as a species, and do you feel like it's along the lines of a groundswell, or do you feel like there's a few people grudgingly stepping forward?
Well, in the fall, there's gonna be a conference of the American Atheist International, some group I had never previously heard of before, in my hometown, in D.C., and the feature will be your humble servant, Professor Dawkins, Professor Dennett, Sam Harris, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And I got a brilliant guy called Matthew Chapman, who's Darwin's great-great-grandson, who wrote a fantastically good book called 40 Days and 40 Nights that's just out, about the Dover, PA, intelligent design trial. Now, this is quite good company to be in, and 20 years ago, I'd say, if you said the words "American Atheist" as an organization, it was Madeleine Murray O'Hare, who was, you know, a fine woman in her way but a bit of a crackpot, frankly, and her organization something of a cult. So this is, I think, a huge improvement. All of these books have been very well received and very well published by respectable publishers, and so honestly, and I think it is part of the counterstroke.
I don't know if it's just a function of language, but "atheist," "agnostic," "non-believer"—and I guess maybe not secularist—but these words still do sort of smack of pejorative or at least being contradictory.
I mean, that's held over from the time, I think, when the Cold War was on and the tyrannical enemy could be described as godless. Don't you think?
Absolutely. You address it in the book, but there are these—this very poor term, "Brights," has been proposed to stand for secularists. Which is really horrible.
It is my main quarrel with Richard, actually.
I don't know if there needs to be a word, but the oppositional nature of all the existing terms that bothers me. It means that belief is still fundamentally (pardon the almost pun) normative, which I feel is unreasonable.
I know, but Jonathan Miller, who's now kind of the new chairman of the International Secular Society or the British Humanist Association, one of the two, in England. He said to me the other day, he doesn't like the word atheist because he doesn't think there should be a special word for it, if you don't have a word for saying you don't believe in the Tooth Fairy, for example.
Right, that's exactly what I mean.
But I think the reason why that's not so, or why I disagree with him slightly—I quite see the point—is this: that the Tooth Fairy people don't come around to your house and try to persuade you, and their beliefs are not necessarily evil. They may be silly, but they don't proselytize for them, they don't come and try and kill you in the name of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. So it isn't quite the same. And the other thing would be—wait, I've lost my place for a second. I know I had a smart point to make. Oh, yes! Religion is an attempt at philosophy. It's what stood in for philosophy in primitive times, and it does raise some quite important questions, for heaven's sake. You can't deny that, right? So where it ends, I think, real philosophy does begin, just as where alchemy ends, chemistry begins and so forth. Astrology with astronomy and all the rest.
Have you noticed, in the reaction against this book, any similarity to the reaction against your stance on the war in Iraq?
No. This seems to be a different argument. I mean, funnily enough, many people seem to think that the religious position is pro-war, whereas in fact, most churches are against. But people don't think—if the Methodist church is against the war, nobody thinks that's religion interfering with politics in the same way as they do if someone says, you know, God wants us to fight Saddam Hussein.
So much of the liberal complaint with you since the Iraq war has been over the idea that you've switched sides. And despite the fact that you argued a case in defense of a war against the regime in Iraq better than the people who waged that war, the issue is fundamentally, how dare you not believe what I believe? Do you really not see a relationship between that stance and that of true believers appalled by your unthinkable suggestion that there is no God?
Well, it's true that there are some people who do think that it's almost profane to take a certain position, yes. That is true in both cases or in both groups, who think, How can anyone? As if, by definition, they couldn't possibly be wrong. Yes, there's a certain self-righteousness, I would agree. I would agree with that.
Christopher Hitchens will read at Town Hall Seattle (1119 Eighth Ave, 652-4255) on Thurs June 7, 7 pm, $5.