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Thank You Hitch

Last year two people I really admired died. They were Apple founder and technology leader, Steve Jobs, and well-known essayist and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens. Both had been diagnosed with cancer and were not expected to live long but their death was still a bit of a shock.

I’m not pretending these people were perfect because they clearly weren’t. Steve Jobs really was often totally unreasonable and arrogant. Hitchens had some odd political views which many people would disagree with. But they were both also geniuses and that makes it easier to overlook their deficiencies.

I’ve already talked about Steve Jobs (in an entry titled “Think Different” on 2011-10-07) so this time I should say something about “The Hitch”. If you have never experienced Hitchens speaking search for a video of him on YouTube and you will see what I mean. He generally destroys those who dare to debate him with a combination of excellent recall of information and vicious wit (some titles include “Hitchens vs God (god loses by the way)”, “Al Sharpton Gets Hitchslapped”, “Christopher Hitchens Destroys Biblical miracle”, and “A Big HitchSlap!”). His victims are often described as being “Hitch slapped”!

In this entry I want to discuss some of his best quotes. As I have said before, quotes don’t necessarily mean much but they are often a good starting point for discussion and sometimes a concise description of a philosophical position.

My first quote is this short and simple one: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

That is a very compact definition of many skeptics’ views and I think it’s true. Anyone who has a theory based on no evidence can have that theory rejected without the need to present evidence against it, because a theory with no evidence isn’t a theory, it’s an opinion. So anyone who believes something “on faith” can never have that belief taken seriously simply because there’s just no need to, it’s simply irrelevant.

Here’s another: “The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.”

So not only should the religious faithful not be taken seriously but they are also infantile and their way of thinking belongs in the past. Again I agree: one of my objections to religion is that it’s embarrassing. People who really believe the world is 6000 years old and that those who don’t believe the same thing as them are evil are stupid and embarrassing to our species.

Finally here is the ultimate quote (of life, the universe, and everything): “Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

I will analyse this point by point. First: “Beware the irrational, however seductive.” Many religious fundamentalists ask me why I won’t believe what they do because if I did I would get eternal life. That idea is irrational but the idea of banishing death is certainly seductive. But believing something doesn’t make it true. If I believed in Santa should I expect lots of expensive gifts next Christmas? Believing something doesn’t make it true, it just makes the believer deluded.

Next: “Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.” We should not enslave ourselves to any god, real or imagined. If a god actually existed and required humans to fully submit to his will I still wouldn’t be interested in worshipping him. The poor Christians who let their imaginary god and their churches think for them are truly pitiful.

Then: “Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish.” I think many people in the skeptical and atheist communities have been too “nice” in the past. They have been so careful when discussing their views that they have failed to say what they really believe. The new atheists, including Hitchens, have been far more open in what they say and this has, of course, lead to conflict.

I’m occasionally accused of being arrogant myself! I remember on one occasion discussing religion with an Anglican minister and being accused of being arrogant simply because I didn’t believe the same thing he did. I think we need to say what we really think without any regard for how it will be perceived – at least in most situations although I admit sometimes a more subtle strategy might be more effective.

Then: “Picture all experts as if they were mammals.” That one short sentence is important but can be easily misused. All experts are prone to errors. But this shouldn’t be extended and used as an excuse to reject facts. Even though the experts who support evolution and climate change are mammals they should still be believed because those mammals also have plenty of facts on their side!

Then: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.” We can’t all spend our lives protesting or occupying Wall Street or being arrested over environmental activism but we should do what we can. We should always be prepared to do what’s right because there’s plenty of unfairness and stupidity out there.

Then: “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” I love arguing (or to put it more politely debating) with people over the big issues even though many people think it’s a waste of time. But I agree that argument is good for it’s own sake, as long as it is about things that really matter.

Then: “Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.” If everyone followed this one rule most of the world’s problems would be solved. I so often see people criticise others for doing exactly what they do. And yes, I know I probably do this myself occasionally and I am aware of which of my beliefs are weakest. One of the reason I engage in debates is to test them and I have changed my mind on some subjects in the past – a phenomenon I have never seen in a fundamentalist of conservative.

Finally: “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” We do live in connected social communities and we do need to consider other people in how we live but in the end we need to do what we think is personally right, not what anyone else tells us.

That’s it. One of the greatest quotes of all time, in my opinion. I think anyone who follows the deeper meaning behind this will be a good and worthwhile person. Thank you Hitch.

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