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December 30th, 2009 AARON MESH | Q & A
 

Christopher Hitchens

The atheist contrarian talks about his submarine baptism and Barack Obama’s way with pirates.

     
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CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
IMAGE: Christian Witkin

Is there anybody Christopher Hitchens won’t fight?

If a man should be measured by the quality of his enemies, Hitchens is a Brit expat Achilles, spreading his wrath around. The political reporter and literary essayist has written books excoriating Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. After 9/11, he alienated most of his fellow travelers on the left by declaring war against radical Islam (“fascism with an Islamic face” was his coinage), then pissed off the rest by emphatically supporting the Iraq war. Not that the right could embrace him for long: In 2007, he released God is Not Great, a book-length polemic about how “religion poisons everything.” (Yes, everything, and yes, every religion.) Since then, he’s divided his time between a road show of debates with theologians—including Al Sharpton and Douglas Wilson—and penning scathing appraisals of Jon Stewart, Jerry Falwell and Sarah Palin.

But with Hitchens set to speak Tuesday as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures Series, he gave WW a perfectly affable hour-long interview, starting by telling us how he’d argue with God, then proceeding to less formidable opponents.

Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he were to encounter the divine after his death, and replied, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” If you were to meet God after your death, what would you say?

What people are asking is two things: One, are you surprised by something you didn’t believe was possible? And the second is, are you not afraid to meet your maker having, so to speak, dissed him? Which is a version of what they call the Pascal wager. So my reply is to say, “I hope, sir, that if at least some of the things said about you are true, that you would have more respect for a person who honestly couldn’t believe in the arguments of your fans than for those who said they did because they hoped for a reward of some kind or were afraid of a punishment.” Because it’s always assumed that you’re not going to get a second chance—revealingly, by the way. This is Judgment Day. It may well be Judgment Day, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be several outcomes or opinions. What I would say is that it would be the beginning of a real argument. Then one could have an argument about the nature of God—which one can’t now, because everything would have to be taken on faith.

Is that an argument you’d relish?

Well, I don’t spend much time rehearsing for it. [Laughs.] Because I don’t expect it would happen. But it’s interesting to see how very quickly, if I say to somebody, “All right, I completely agree with you—that there is a God, and that there is a Judgment Day, and that you only get one chance, and that unless you’ve been absolutely faithful all the time, you’re going to go to hell—why not believe that?,” they often look rather uneasy if they say you believe it too, in the way you’re supposed to. There’s a story about the Catholic priest who died—it doesn’t have to be a Catholic, but let’s say it is—and he’s been a faithful old body all his life: He’s actually looked after the parish, visited the sick, consoled the dying, hasn’t raped and tortured children, hasn’t fathered kids out of wedlock, hasn’t been a fascist or an anti-Semite or all the other things that you can very well be if you’re a Catholic priest. He’s just been a decent parish priest. And he dies, and he’s presented to St. Peter, who says, “Well, here’s your reward. Lifetime of good service to the cause, welcome to heaven.” And the priest says, “Well, you know what? I’m not so sure I want [this]. It’s very nice of you and everything, and I appreciate the endorsement, but it seems to me there are a lot of people in hell who really need me more. I mean, think of much they must be suffering and how much they must be in mental and physical torment. I feel my place is ministering to them.” In Christian theology, you would be told you’re wasting your time, if you said that. You haven’t got the point at all. You weren’t paying attention, didn’t get the memo. I’m answering the spirit of the question, rather than the letter. It’s a good question, so long as those who are asking it are willing to accept what they seem to be saying.

But for the short answer, I think Bertrand Russell is perfectly correct. One should be polite, of course. One should never rule out any possibility. After all, the atheist doesn’t say there is no God, only says that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there is one, and that all the efforts to provide evidence have failed and all the ontological arguments are weak to the point of being completely unequal to a test of such a proposition.

You’ve written about the hospitality you’ve encountered from Christians during your debates. But has anything you’ve heard from their side changed your mind or surprised you?

I don’t flatter myself, [but] it would be almost impossible for them to surprise me: Once you know the Christian argument, you know it. And it is rather an old one. It’s been knocking around for some time. One of their disadvantages, if you see what I mean, even the strongest of them—the best educated or the most academic—has a huge disadvantage even with an amateur and a part-timer like myself, which is that I do know their script. And I know that they can’t depart from it very much—they just can’t. They’re stuck with the old books and the old promises. Whereas the arguments of our side have, I think, improved quite a lot, especially in the last few decades—mainly because of the advances in cosmology on the macro level, and DNA on the micro level. In other words, we now know an enormous amount more than we used to about the universe and our own human nature, and how animal it is, and how material. And how fascinating. So we keep coming up with more and more impressive stuff that makes religion, I would say more than anything else, irrelevant. And the best they can do is to say, “Well, now we have all this new knowledge—which we didn’t used to think was there, or didn’t think even should be looked for, or didn’t believe—now, come to think of it, that shows God was even cleverer than we thought in the first place.” Well, that’s not an argument at all, really. Or it’s not a way to think. Because it means that you can just adapt everything to what you asserted originally. So, it’s like teaching a parrot a new word; it’s not really education. So no, I haven’t been surprised. They don’t try and surprise me; they try and tell me that they’ll pray for me, and that they hope I’ll see the light—which, again, isn’t much of an argument.

But do you think that the religious impulse is something that can be eliminated from the human race?

One thing that doesn’t need revision from Freud’s essay “The Future of an Illusion” is exactly that it can’t be eradicated, precisely because the impulses that give rise to it are so strong—the main one being the fear of death and the wish to conquer it, and the other being the need for authority. Freud goes on, obviously, a lot about the idea of the eternal father, someone who will look after you forever. People’s need to be secure, in other words, and people’s fear of being free. Which is very strong. People go on about the human impulse for freedom and liberation, and of course that is quite strong, but I’m not sure it’s as strong as the fear of being free, and the wish to have someone who will guarantee your security. So that, plus the fact that we’re an only partly rational primate species—we’re afraid of the dark, and of each other—I think makes it impossible to eradicate the religious impulse. In fact, I don’t even think it’s desirable to try and eradicate it. But I think it’s very important to bring it under control.

So what’s your goal—to simply increase the signs of polarization?

Well, that’s my job, yes—that’s the only thing I’m any good at. The immediate task is the defeat and discredit of militant theocracy of any kind. Proselytizing religious fanaticism. That’s what given the impetus to this current wave of debate and polemic, I think, is just the sheer nastiness and terrible danger of that. And then to defend, where it has been established, things like the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—and in general, defending the legacy of the Enlightenment against these barbaric attacks. The ultimate goal would be for religion to become a private matter, something people could profess to themselves and keep between themselves and whatever deity they preferred. I wouldn’t have to know what someone’s beliefs were, and they wouldn’t feel obliged to inform me. That would be, I think, a fairly good society. And I think it’s possible, too, by the way. That you can get. But it would always be under attack, because the undercurrent would always be there: “It’s not enough that I believe this; you must believe it too.”

My request that religion leave me alone and I’ll leave it alone is meant to be a reasonable request, but I do understand that it isn’t really a reasonable one, because they’ll never think of that as a reasonable deal. Either because of the explosion of messianic repression that’s involved—or you might say compassion, the feeling that they owe it to me to bring me to salvation. It’s a huge drag. I mean, when I was touring with those [Idaho pastor Douglas] Wilson people, they were offering me all kinds of amazing advice to try and shorten my time in hell.

What kind of advice?

I’ll give you an example: One of them asked me, in a very serious, quite friendly turn, “Were you ever baptized?” I said, “As a matter of fact, I’ve been baptized twice. Once when I was a baby, into the Church of England, on a submarine in the Royal Navy as it happens, and once when I was about 30, when I was getting married to a woman who was Greek, and whose parents very much hoped that we’d get married in a Greek Orthodox ceremony.” So I told them my baptismal stories. They said, “It’s very important that you go back to those churches and leave them and renounce them. Have yourself un-baptized. You must do this. I really urge you, because I’ve come to really like and respect you over the course of this tour we’ve been doing, and I don’t want to see your punishment any heavier than it needs to be. I’m afraid I can’t save you—you’re beyond that now—but you can make it easy on yourself.” These people felt that it was their duty to sort of help me out. Rather sweet of them in a way, I suppose. But it makes me feel more and more how weird this stuff is, frankly. And cultish.

You hold to the increasingly isolated position that the war in Iraq was morally and strategically justified. How many casualties would it take for you to change your mind?

It was the casualties, in a way, that persuaded me in the first place. I mean, if there’s going to be a body-bag argument—which, incidentally, I don’t completely think there should be—but to the extent that body bags weighed with me, it was because of the cost of the survival of the Saddam Hussein regime. Which was very severe, and was being borne mainly by Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds. Not much less than a million, we reckon. Which is to say nothing of the suffering of the people who weren’t being killed—who were being tortured, or being forced to lead meaningless lives under a dictatorship. And the possibility that that could get worse, if the regime ever reacquired nuclear and other capacities. So I thought the Baathist regime was too dangerous to be allowed to carry on. The number of casualties incurred in removing it will never ever, ever, ever catch up, can’t possibly catch up with the number of casualties that were necessitated by its continuing in power.

So you’re coming into a town that is a pretty notorious “No blood for oil” kind of place. What’s your response to the consensus here?

I’m well used to it. There’s a large swath of Washington, D.C., that’s like that, too. I feel sorry for a place that prides itself on having that mentality. But they shouldn’t think there’s anything special about it. Or brave. Or distinctive. It’s like Berkeley: Beware of hubris in adopting an easy stance like that and claiming that it’s courageous or revolutionary. I think I know how to distinguish courageous revolutionaries from pacifists.

Did the abject incompetence of Sarah Palin provide an easy escape for you and U.S. military interventionists who might otherwise have been tempted to vote for John McCain?

Um, no. It’s a good question: With some people I know, she certainly did make that difference. But those people were conservative Republicans who were simply shocked at the unseriousness of it. I wouldn’t have voted for McCain anyway. Not because of agreeing with him or not politically, but I don’t think someone like him should be President. I frankly thought—and wrote at the time—that I didn’t think he was quite up to it physically, and he showed a couple of signs of not being all that tightly wrapped. In a way, I thought the Palin choice was a symptom of something that was wrong with McCain. So that made it final for me. But I was persuaded that I was going to cast my vote for Obama quite early on.

Even though you’ve not shown a great deal of enthusiasm for him?

I wasn’t completely bewitched, either. But one of the things I’ve learned is something I never should have not known: How important character is. Nobody says it isn’t, of course. But you used to hear serious people saying—and I would probably have agreed with it for quite a bit of my life—“Let’s talk about the issues, not the personalities.” But I’ve never heard a politician say that who didn’t have a very strong interest in people ignoring the question of his personality. And I liked what I knew of Senator Obama. And, by the way, I still do. There are things about him that I don’t like, but there’s nothing diseased about him. As there is about Mrs. Clinton, for example: People go running for therapy and ego. One thing that impressed me about Obama is that it was quite clear if he lost the election, it wouldn’t be the worst day of his life. And I noticed something a while back that is impressive exactly because no one, including me, remembers it most of the time: namely, the decision to rescue the captain and crew off the coast of Somalia.

Right. The piracy bit.

Yes. Now, someone must have come to him and said, “Mr. President, we have two, maybe three options. We can try and run out the clock on these guys; we can try and negotiate with them and their onshore Somali backers; or we can ask the Navy SEALS to do a maximum of four head shots, and put an end to the whole standoff.” He must have said, “Tell the SEALS to go get it done.” Which, with amazing forensic selectivity, they were able to do. But that’s not what impresses me so much. It’s that he didn’t make a speech saying, “Hey, look what I just did.” Imagine what Reagan would have said. You’d never have heard the end of it. Obama basically thought, “You can draw your own conclusions. People who need to know, now know.” I like that combination of qualities. That’s what I want in a president.

Who’s more damaging to the national discourse: The rabid Palinites or the cheap ironies of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?

Oh well, that isn’t a difficult question for me. But it isn’t fair to Stewart and Colbert. Palin is not genuine. I don’t think she’s the real thing, as her supporters do. I think she’s just toying with these crowds and essentially cashing out. I think she’s extremely cynical. And I don’t know whether it makes it worse or not that she is. I mean, people argue that George Wallace, even while he was governor of Alabama, had concluded that segregation was beyond saving. Apparently he had. But he knew a good political issue when he saw one. So he was prepared to act as if he believed in it for the votes that it would bring him. Now, whether that’s worse than being a racist or not, I leave to you to decide. I’ve written several things about Palin now. Don’t go around saying how dangerous she is. She’s not really dangerous, except in that she’s a very cynical opportunist. She probably doesn’t mean half of what she says; she probably doesn’t understand half of what she’s doing. But she is a demagogue. And she’s willing to flirt with very nasty and very stupid people. Now, the easy laugh stuff of Colbert and Stewart and the rest is like the mentality you were just attributing to Portland: Everyone patting themselves on the back for having such OK views. That is boring, of course, and I find it unattractive, but it’s not dangerous in the sense of whipping up people who are racists, creationists, chauvinists and so forth, and giving them the impression that they’ve found themselves a big-name candidate. That’s a shitty thing to be doing whether she intends to be their leader or not. I think she’s going to leave them flat, which is how they deserve to be left. But if I’m wrong, than I guess I would say she’s even worse. I don’t know. It’s two different kinds of being excremental, anyway.


SEE HIM: Christopher Hitchens will speak as a guest of the Portland Arts and Lecture Series at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 5. Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 248-4335. $32.
 
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