Christopher Hitchens: Why "Religion Poisons Everything"
The controversial author says if the God of faith existed life would be “worse than hell.”
By Laura Sheahen
It's no surprise that a man who questioned Mother Teresa's morals should have a larger beef with faith. Christopher Hitchens' latest book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, attacks every belief system that rejects science or seeks to control its followers, whether or not it is theistic. Hitchens spoke with contributor Laura Sheahen recently about the book—and why even religion's purported consolations hold no allure for him.
What do you imagine or think the world would be like without religion?
I find I can't do it, and believe me, I've tried. I'm sort of resigned to this—an argument that has no conclusion. I'll give you an example. My dear wife has, I would say, probably never opened a religious book, and seems to be one of those people to whom the whole idea is utterly remote and absurd. I ought to wish, oughtn't I, as an atheist, an anti-theist, in fact, that everyone was like her. But somehow, and this may be an irony at my expense, I don't wish that. I rather enjoy the argument. All I'm doing is contributing my little bit to what is humanity's oldest disagreement. Though I still have to say that, while I can't imagine life without religion, I also cannot imagine what it would be like to be leading a religious life or the life of a believer. If I'm in a political argument, I think I can, with reasonable accuracy and without boasting, put the other person's side of the case at least as well as they could. One has to be able to say that in any well-conducted argument. But it's not possible for me to think myself into the position of someone who is a believing Roman Catholic. I can't imagine what it's like. I hope that's not a failure of imagination on my part. There's been some research in cognitive science, I'm told, that discloses that there have always been perhaps 10 to 15 percent of people who are, as Pascal puts it, so made that they cannot believe. To us, when people talk about faith, it's white noise. But I'm very intrigued with it, and I have a lot of friends who are very deeply religious. It's with them that, as I say in my book, I most enjoy arguing.
There's a rumor that you've said you can't stand anyone who believes in God.
If I said that, I must have been out of temper, or been quoted out of context. There are moments when I do think that, and I might have been caught in one of those moments. But I would never write that down as a statement and put my name to it. My book opens with quite a long address to my religious friends, in an attempt to show that I'm not just setting out to ridicule them.
How do you think atheists should get along interpersonally with people of strong faith? Obviously, if they're trying to convert you, that's one thing, but if they're just...
I don't mind them trying to convert me at all. I welcome it. I've proved to be as difficult to convert as I am to hypnotize.
How many people have tried to hypnotize you?
Oh, several. I really ought to give up smoking. So not only did I try it, but I sort of wanted it to work. I wasn't resisting. I was really hoping it would happen, and nothing did. It seemed to come to snake oil to me, but to take a step back, a lot of my religious friends have a habit that they don't realize irritates me, of saying that I wouldn't go on about this so much and write about it as much as I do, if I wasn't secretly a rather religious person. And that I'm really just a seeker in disguise. I basically know that's not true of me myself.
Yet you've made a swing politically from the left at least somewhat to the right. Do you think there's a chance you would swing from unbelief to faith?
I'd rather not put it like that, but I know what you mean. It would have to be the equivalent of undergoing some transformation of the chemistry of my brain. I might have a stroke or become an epileptic and become religious, I suppose. But it would take that. But that doesn't mean I'm not always fascinated to talk to people of faith.
Your book discusses the problems with the Abrahamic faiths, but then says Eastern religion is not the answer. It seemed like your main criticism of Eastern religion wasn't so much about its tenets so much as one sex abuse scandal at one ashram.
Oh, no. My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate." It's the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you've got that's unequivocally worth having.
But don't you sometimes get sick of your mind running on and on—and want to calm it a little bit?
No. I know what you mean by the question, and I suppose I know what you mean by the temptation. But no. It's very quickly cured by the reflection that my brain hasn't got that long to run. And there will be plenty of time to be dead. The fact that my brain doesn't give me much peace doesn't worry me. I'm grateful for it. When people say, "But you could have bliss, and calm, and Nirvana," I say, "I don't want it. I don't believe you could give it to me. But if you could, I would not take you up on the offer. I don't want a life without anxiety and conflict and combat. To the contrary, I want all those things in large measure."
Religion promises release from anxiety and pressure and conflict, so...
I think that's one of the most contemptible things about it.
Quite a number of atheists will tell you that they wish they could believe; they just can't make themselves do it. I don't understand that. [They] say, "Well, it's a shame it's not true." And I say, "No it's not, it's a good thing it's not true." Because if it was true, you would be permanently supervised from the moment you were born until forever after you were dead. You'd always be someone else's creature. And the only duty you would owe him, he having done nothing but casually create you, would be constant adoration that would lead to eventual bliss and the dissolution of the personality. Well, I can't imagine anything more horrible. It's a really ghastly idea. It's worse than hell.
And yet some people are sick of their personalities and their flaws, and they want to shuffle that off.
Let them do it if they must. I think it's an expression of terrible weakness of character on their part, but if they must become groveling, abandoned serfs, let them do it. But don't let them tell me that I must teach it to my children. Because then it stops being a disagreement and it becomes a quarrel. A fight. I'm not going to let them do that. They may not influence my government. They may not have their nonsense taught in the schools my children go to. They may not raise my taxes to spend on their places of worship. None of this. Surely they've got a direct line to the supernatural. What the hell more do they want? I keep asking, "Why aren't they happy?"
Your book contrasts the numinous with the supernatural. Could you describe the difference?
It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.
That's what Richard Dawkins says. Do you agree with Dawkins?
I don't agree with Mr. Dawkins on everything, but he's been an absolutely outstanding contributor to this argument. I say in my book that if you look through the Hubble Telescope, or read a few pages of Steven Hawking on, say, the event horizon, I think you'd be a very undernourished person spiritually if you could go on being impressed by the idea of a burning bush when compared to things like that. It seems utterly trivial to me to say, "A real miracle is Jesus driving pigs mad and sending them down the hill with devils inside them into the sea." That doesn't impress me at all. I don't believe it ever happened. It was sorcery if it did. But I'm totally unimpressed.
The idea of someone who's been mentally ill suddenly being well doesn't impress you? Someone who was raving and miserable?
No, because we can say mentally ill, and we know what we're talking about. We have chemical cures for schizophrenia. The expression in this instance, that of being possessed by devils, often led to appalling treatment of the mentally ill because they were thought to be possessed by Satan. It's all the difference in the world. In fact, it illustrates the difference very well. You can't cure mental illness by driving devils into pigs. I'm sorry; it's primitive and revolting. Nor, by the way, would I be impressed if a virgin gave birth.
You would not be impressed?
Not in the smallest degree. I imagine that freak parthenogenesis is just possible. There are, in fact, species that reproduce partly that way. If someone said, "The thing about me that you don't have in common with me is that my mother was a virgin when I was born,” I would say, "Well, so what? It certainly doesn't prove the truth of everything you say." If he later was to tell me that last week he died, and I'd read about it in the papers and actually seen him dead, and I was surprised to see him again in the street, I wouldn't be that impressed. It wouldn't prove anything about the truth of his doctrines. It would not prove he was the son of God or entitle him to forgive me my sins.
But you're prepared to believe that he would have risen from the dead?
I say granted, there are more wonderful things in the natural world than that. But I will not say, if he proves all these things to me—supposing he could—that he has the authority to make two and two be five, or declare himself part of a Trinity, or least of all to forgive my sins. If I suddenly went blind and he said, "Well, I can take care of that, just by spitting on your eye," then I'd have to say, "I'm very impressed now. You've really made my day." But we all know that this stuff is completely puerile fantasy and invention. None of it ever happened or ever could have. And the belief in it is attractive in children, perhaps. A fairy tale bit. But it's not really attractive in grown ups, and it can't be taught to people as if it were true. And it's wicked to say to people: If they don't believe it, they'll be tortured forever.
At the end of your book, you refute the argument that the worst societies—the Nazi and Soviet regimes—were atheistic. Could you summarize your position?
Twentieth-century Germany was not, in the main, an atheist state. Hitler never renounced the Catholic Church. He was happy to receive the prayers of the Catholic bishops in every town in Germany on his birthday, as ordered by the pope—the concordat with whom pretty much allowed him to consolidate power in the first place. He undoubtedly had the hope of replacing Christianity with a state religion based partly on paganism and partly on worship of himself. But to say that he was an atheist is utterly false. Fascism and communism—the roots of the totalitarian impulse are in faith, not in skepticism. Because [the totalitarian impulse] claims to be a total solution. And to make essentially no difference between the civic and the private life, and to arbitrate on everything from sex to diet.
Actually Christianity doesn't, to its credit, do a whole lot about diet. It does go on a lot about sex, though. It has ruined, irreparably ruined the happiness of millions and millions of people for generations by doing so and threatens to do the same now—and my view cannot be forgiven for that. The religious impulse, if, shall we say, secularized a bit, is still dangerous: the impulse to worship, the impulse to take things on faith, the impulse to believe in miracles, the impulse to adore and to believe in incarnate good and evil. All these things have dire consequences.
So you're saying if we watch for this impulse to worship or adore as we would for a bad habit, that we can overcome it as a society?
I would prefer to use my term to transcend or outgrow it. But at least to know what the problem is. It doesn't mean we'll vanquish it, but to realize that's not a healthy instinct.
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Laura Sheahen is Senior Religion Editor at Beliefnet.com, where this interview originally appeared. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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