Christopher Hitchens

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259or Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company  

“He is a firm believer, all right: That religion is evil, and that, perhaps on the eighth day, man created … By Mark Rahner Seattle Times staff reporter Christopher Hitchens’ omnipresence does not in itself refute God’s existence. But it is evidence that his pugnacious best-seller, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Twelve, $24.99), has struck a chord. I played devil’s advocate with the contrarian Vanity Fair columnist and busy TV pundit before his manifestation – uh, appearance, at Town Hall Seattle Thursday.

Q: Let’s see if we can find some common ground with everyone: Do you at least say “Oh, God” during sex? A: Well, that’s what they say about the atheist, why he is to be pitied: No one to talk to during the act of congress.  No, I say “Thank God” as well, and I sometimes say “Bless you.” Not all of these to do with the act of congress, I might add. It could be just for any slight favor. Q: Why does religion poison everything?A: The essential thing would be, I suppose, that because it’s man-made, it means that lots of gods get manufactured and then there are lots of wars about which god is the right one – and even between people who believe in the same one, as in Iraq now, different kinds of Muslims willing to kill on the proposition.Q: I won’t tolerate any bad-mouthing of Zeus.A: No, quite. It’s retarded our civilization a lot, this business, in that way. I think it undermines our basic integrity in that it means that you can only do a right action or avoid a wrong one because you want a heavenly reward or are afraid of a hellish punishment. A lot of people say, ” Where would we get our ethics from if not a celestial dictatorship?” Well, I think that’s a wicked question. I think it poisons the very root of what makes us human. We ought to do the right thing because that’s what we ought to be doing. And a lot of very good people do in fact successfully act that way, and I think there should be more of them. Whereas – sorry to go on about this – the second half, the other shoe is, if you want otherwise normal people to behave really badly, as for example mutilating the genitals of their children or blowing themselves up in a Jewish old-peoples home, trying to forbid female sexuality, then you do need religion. People will do things they would ordinarily regard as unthinkable once they’ve got divine sanction or warrant for it. And that’s very bad, and currently very dangerous.Q: Since about 85 percent of Americans are religious, you’ve got a lot of nerve.A: I’m practically sure from my experience with this book – and other experiences, too, because I do a lot of public speaking and I tour the country a lot and I’ve been doing it very intensely lately and taking on debate at every stop – that those figures are false. The people are lying to the opinion polls. There are a lot of churches in this country, it must be agreed. But there are not enough to house the number of people who say they go there. Stand in the middle of Seattle on Sunday morning at church time and see if the streets are empty.They are not.Q: You’re coming to the state with the highest percentage of people who say they’re not religious.A: Yes, I know, but I think there are a great number more than that,especially in the South, which is where I’ve been mainly doing the book. I wanted to do it in Dixie first. Really, I don’t boast, but at every stop the people who’d sponsored the event had to cancel the event and book a bigger hall. And the huge number of people who came were under the impression that they were the only other atheists until they got there. They were surprised.Q: Would it be arrogant to draw a correlation with the high percentage and the area’s high literacy?A: Well, in a lot of countries and parts of other countries, it is true to say that the education level correlates with secularism. I mean it’s just true of, say, Turkey in the Muslim world, or Tunisia,where I’ve just been, in the Muslim world. It’s the most secular Arab country and has by far the highest literacy rate, by far the highest female employment, by far the highest home ownership, higher education, everything. Life expectancy, the lot. There’s no question it correlates. But I don’t believe that it’s proper to say that smarter people are more likely to be an atheist, because it’s a very simple argument, and a lot of perfectly ordinary people have seen through the priests all through history.Q: You also say religions were created when people knew nothing about nature and that all we know now makes them seem even more irrational.A: Well, yeah. It’s taking its time, but the Genome Project shows beyond doubt that we’re made up of the same genes as other animal and even vegetable species. We’ve also got a lot of junk in the DNA that couldn’t possibly be put there by any Designer. It could be snipped out. It’s already had the huge effect of totally abolishing racism.The concept of race, in other words, is discredited. And it utterly undoes any notion of a creator. And this is going to work its way through the system.Take this Intelligent Design stuff. Everyone north of the Mason Dixon line thinks that below there people have sort of the wasteland of prohibition and piety punctuated by offenses against chastity with domestic animals and so on, and snake handling. In fact, in Oklahoma and Kansas and Texas, every time the creationists have gone to the school board and then to the court, they’ve been defeated and thrown off the school board, and thrown out of the court. People are embarrassed. They don’t want to come from the state where people laugh and say, “Oh, that’s where you think that there’s no evolution and you teach your kids nonsense.” Put it to the test, every time it crumbles.Q: I take it you won’t be having a wine and cheese reception at the Discovery Institute here.A: Well I can’t wait to see the Discovery Institute people. It’s a natural wonder that they exist. It really is. I sort of admire their pluck.Q: Since you also don’t spare Islam from evisceration, have you hired Salman Rushdie’s bodyguards?A: No, no, no. I don’t take any stock in any of that. But I do, when people ask me this – which they often do – I say, “Look, everybody in America has had a fatwah issued against them.” You can look it up. I think it was in 1999 by Osama bin Laden. It applies to all Americans,so there’s no special one involving me. I’d like to do more to earnit. I intend to do more. But I mean, no one’s exempt. You’re not going to avoid the wrath of these people by making nice. Nor should you want to.Q: There’s also the argument that atheism is a dogmatic belief of its own.A: It’s a new last-ditch invention by the godly. I’ll tell you what the origin of it is. It’s where (Pat) Robertson in the ’80s tried to get secular humanism defined as a religion so that it couldn’t be taught in school. Trying to borrow the idea – fatuous. Nice try.Didn’t work. This is the second coming of this Robertson fraud, to say that atheists are fundamentalists, too. The atheist materialist position is this: that progress is made by free and open inquiry and there should be no barriers of entry into that market, and it comes from the clash of ideas and the clash of ideas with evidence, and that’s the only way that anything can be accomplished. So to hold that view strongly, however strongly you hold it, can’t be described as dogmatic, because it by definition excludes all things that can’t be tested and verified and that aren’t subject to falsification.Q: Critics say that you ignore the good that’s come from religion.A: That’s what my challenge question is designed to answer. (“You have to name a moral statement made or a moral action performed by a believer in history or at any time or place that could not have been performed or uttered by an atheist.”)If someone says, “I’m against slavery because I’m a Christian,” I have to credit him for saying so. People mention (Bishop) Wilberforce a lot this year because of this movie “Amazing Grace,” and so on. But fair enough, if that was his motive, I can’t say I despise it, but I can say the case against slavery had been made long before that by non-Christians like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin and the founders of the American anti-slavery society. The case against slavery is complete without invoking a deity, and that while there isno anti-slavery argument in the Bible – not one, no warrant for the anti-slavery position in the holy text – there are many, many justifications for it, which were used for hundreds of years to establish the institution in the name of Christianity. And so it’s probably just as well that a few Christians were ashamed enough of themselves to oppose that, but it proves nothing, no thing.Same with Dr. King. The case for civil rights had been made by black secularists a long time before he started preaching. He happened to bea brilliant preacher and a very exceptional human being, but you cannot possibly use the book of Exodus to oppose segregation and discrimination and so on, because it contains the arguments for genocide and slavery.Q: W.C. Fields said, “I believe I’ll have another drink.” You have are putation for being a bon vivant.A: Well, I mean yeah, I can actually absorb a drink if I have to, and if there are cocktails, I’m willing to join in. But I live in Washington, where if you have more than two glasses of white wine,you’re considered a debauchee.Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259or Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company