In God, Distrust
By MICHAEL KINSLEY
May 13, 2007
Observers of the Christopher Hitchens phenomenon have been expecting a book about religion from him around now. But this impressive and enjoyable attack on everything so many people hold dear is not the book we were expecting.
First in London 30 or more years ago, then in New York and for the last couple of decades in Washington, Hitchens has established himself as a character. This character draws on such familiar sources as the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene; the leftist politics of the 1960s (British variant); and — of course — the person of George Orwell. (Others might throw in the flower-clutching Bunthorne from Gilbert and Sullivan's “Patience,” but that is probably not an intentional influence.) Hitchens is the bohemian and the swell, the dashing foreign correspondent, the painstaking literary critic and the intellectual engage. He charms Washington hostesses but will set off a stink bomb in the salon if the opportunity arises.
His conversation sparkles, not quite effortlessly, and if he is a bit too quick to resort to French in search of le mot juste, his jewels of erudition, though flashy, are real. Or at least they fool me. Hitchens was right to choose Washington over New York and London.
His enemies would like to believe he is a fraud. But he isn't, as the very existence of his many enemies tends to prove. He is self-styled, to be sure, but no more so than many others in Washington — or even in New York or London — who are not nearly as good at it. He is a principled dissolute, with the courage of his dissolution: he enjoys smoking and drinking, and not just the reputation for smoking and drinking — although he enjoys that too. And through it all he is productive to an extent that seems like cheating: 23 books, pamphlets, collections and collaborations so far; a long and often heavily researched column every month in Vanity Fair; frequent fusillades in Slate and elsewhere; and speeches, debates and other public spectacles whenever offered.
The big strategic challenge for a career like this is to remain interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise. If they expect you to say X, you say minus X.
Consistency is foolish, as the man said. (Didn't he?) Under the unwritten and somewhat eccentric rules of American public discourse, a statement that contradicts everything you have ever said before is considered for that reason to be especially sincere, courageous and dependable. At The New Republic in the 1980s, when I was the editor, we used to joke about changing our name to “Even the Liberal New Republic,” because that was how we were referred to whenever we took a conservative position on something, which was often. Then came the day when we took a liberal position on something and we were referred to as “Even the Conservative New Republic.”
As this example illustrates, among writers about politics, the surprise technique usually means starting left and turning right. Trouble is, you do this once and what's your next party trick?
Christopher Hitchens had seemed to be solving this problem by turning his conversion into an ideological “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Long ago he came out against abortion. Interesting! Then he discovered and made quite a kosher meal of the fact that his mother, deceased, was Jewish, which under Jewish law meant he himself was Jewish. Interesting!! (He was notorious at the time for his anti-Zionist sympathies.) In the 1990s, Hitchens was virulently, and somewhat inexplicably, hostile to President Bill Clinton. Interesting!!! You would have thought that Clinton's decadence — the thing that bothered other liberals and leftists the most — would have positively appealed to Hitchens. Finally and recently, he became the most (possibly the only) intellectually serious non-neocon supporter of George W. Bush's Iraq war. Interesting!!!!
Where was this train heading? Possibly toward an open conversion to mainline conservatism and quick descent into cliche and demagoguery (the path chosen by Paul Johnson, a somewhat similar British character of the previous generation). But surely there was time for a few more intellectual adventures before retiring to an office at the Hoover Institution or some other nursing home of the mind. One obvious possibility stood out: Hitchens, known to be a fervid atheist, would find God and take up religion. The only question was which flavor he would choose. Embrace Islam? Too cute. Complete the half-finished Jewish script? Become a Catholic, following the path well trodden by such British writers as Waugh and Greene? Or — most daring and original — would he embrace the old Church of England (Episcopalianism in America) and spend his declining years writing about the beauty of the hymns, the essential Britishness of village churchyards, the importance of protecting religion from the dangers of excessive faith, and so on?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, Hitchens is either playing the contrarian at a very high level or possibly he is even sincere. But just as he had us expecting minus X, he confounds us by reverting to X. He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion. Sometimes, instead of the word “religion,” he refers to it as “god-worship,” which, although virtually a tautology (isn't “object of worship” almost a definition of a god?), makes the practice sound sinister and strange.
Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church. The book is full of logical flourishes and conundrums, many of them entertaining to the nonbeliever. How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift? On a more somber note, how can the “argument from design” (that only some kind of “intelligence” could have designed anything as perfect as a human being) be reconciled with the religious practice of female genital mutilation, which posits that women, at least, as nature creates them, are not so perfect after all? Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can't answer.
And all the logical sallies don't exactly add up to a sustained argument, because Hitchens thinks a sustained argument shouldn't even be necessary and yet wouldn't be sufficient. To him, it's blindingly obvious: the great religions all began at a time when we knew a tiny fraction of what we know today about the origins of Earth and human life. It's understandable that early humans would develop stories about gods or God to salve their ignorance. But people today have no such excuse. If they continue to believe in the unbelievable, or say they do, they are morons or lunatics or liars. “The human wish to credit good things as miraculous and to charge bad things to another account is apparently universal,” he remarks, unsympathetically.
Although Hitchens's title refers to God, his real energy is in the subtitle: “religion poisons everything.” Disproving the existence of God (at least to his own satisfaction and, frankly, to mine) is just the beginning for Hitchens. In fact, it sometimes seems as if existence is just one of the bones Hitchens wants to pick with God — and not even the most important. If God would just leave the world alone, Hitchens would be glad to let him exist, quietly, in retirement somewhere. Possibly the Hoover Institution.
Hitchens is attracted repeatedly to the principle of Occam's razor: that simple explanations are more likely to be correct than complicated ones. (E.g., Earth makes a circle around the Sun; the Sun doesn't do a complex roller coaster ride around Earth.) You might think that Occam's razor would favor religion; the biblical creation story certainly seems simpler than evolution. But Hitchens argues effectively again and again that attaching the religious myth to what we know from science to be true adds nothing but needless complication.
For Hitchens, it's personal. He is a great friend of Salman Rushdie, and he reminds us that it wasn't just some crazed fringe Muslim who threatened Rushdie's life, killed several others and made him a virtual prisoner for the crime of writing a novel. Religious leaders from all the major faiths, who disagree on some of the most fundamental questions, managed to put aside their differences to agree that Rushdie had it coming. (Elsewhere, Hitchens notes tartly that if any one of the major faiths is true, then the others must be false in important respects — an obvious point often forgotten in the warm haze of ecumenism.)
Hitchens's erudition is on display — impressively so, and perhaps sometimes pretentiously so. In one paragraph, he brings in Stephen Jay Gould, chaos theory and Saul Bellow; pronounces the movie “It's a Wonderful Life” “engaging but abysmal” (a typical Hitchens aside: cleverly paradoxical? witlessly oxymoronic? take your pick) in the way it explains to a “middlebrow audience” Heisenberg's uncertainty principle; and winds down through a discussion of the potential of stem cells. Nevertheless, and in spite of all temptations, he has written an entire book without a single reference to Sir Isaiah Berlin, the fox or the hedgehog.
But speaking of foxes, Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers by writing a serious and deeply felt book, totally consistent with his beliefs of a lifetime. And God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult.
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