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Listening to Hitchens Again

If I get a bit bored and there’s nothing to watch on TV (that is, most of he time) I often go on a trolling expedition on YouTube. I like to find a controversial video and leave some comments there to deliberately aggravate my philosophical opponents, such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives.

Some of the best places to find sources for these “debates” are YouTube videos involving Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. If you have read this blog in the past you will know I am a great fan of “the Hitch” and have commented on his vicious and unstoppable wit on many occasions (most recently in an entry titled “Thank You Hitch” from 2012-01-06 shortly after his death from cancer).

The latest video I watched was “Hitchens versus Hitchens” where Christopher Hitchens (aka “the Hitch” – there was only one *the* Hitch) debated his brother Peter Hitchens who is also a well-known essayist and commentator but with a very different perspective on politics and religion.

Initially I thought Peter Hitchens was a fairly intelligent, reasonable person but as the debate progressed he became more and more desperate to score any points and it became obvious that a lot of his opinions are in fact just as nutty as most other political and religious conservatives. For example, he denies global warming and supports intelligent design without having any apparent knowledge of either.

So it soon became obvious that this was yet another debate where the Hitch was giving his opposition a good old fashioned thrashing, maybe the best since another recent video I watched where Hitchens and Stephen Fry destroyed a Catholic bishop and conservative politician by swinging the vote from 678 for 1102 against, to 268 for 1876 against (they were debating against the proposition that the Catholic Church is a force for good – yeah I know – too easy!)

The Hitchens versus Hitchens debate included many topics, but the section on religion was the most interesting I think. The Hitch didn’t spend a lot of time on the idea of whether Christianity was true and whether there is any evidence supporting it (which is an interesting subject in itself but not one which either side was focussing on this time). Instead he concentrated on the philosophical aspects of belief, especially relating to morality.

This is a more interesting subject in many ways because really the truth of Christian belief and the evidence for God is fairly well settled (most Christian beliefs are myths and there is no evidence for a god) whereas the moral aspects of religion (especially Christianity) are a bit more open to debate.

So here are some of the Hitch’s points (along with my interpretation and commentary on them)…

He sees religion as a form of slavery or totalitarianism, and uses North Korea as a comparison. But religion is much worse because God knows more about you than any despot can ever know, and you cannot even escape his influence after death because that’s when he really gets judgmental!

I’m sure there are many moderate Christians who don’t see it this way, but by doing that they are rejecting the essential doctrine of their belief: that God knows all of your actions and thoughts, and judges you accordingly. Hitchens (and I) would suggest this whole idea is quite malicious.

Christianity claims Jesus was sent to save us. But from what? And he supposedly takes the blame for our sins, and we are all sinners and born into sin. Does this not sound like a form of mind control where the victims are told they are lacking in some way but if you just do what you are told everything will be OK? Obviously this is also hideously hurtful and manipulative.

Many believers think morality is impossible without a religious belief. Hitchens obviously rejects this whole notion. I would take it further and say the opposite: you can’t be moral if your source your morality from a religious belief. Why? Because morality cannot be just lifted from an old book written by a particular group of people with a particular personal perspective in the past, it has to be carefully considered and arrived at by the individual. And I know that not everyone will get to exactly the same place but most sane, sensible people do agree on what is moral to a remarkable degree.

Not every religious person just takes their entire morality from their holy book. Many pick and choose what to accept. But if they do that then surely they are rejecting one of the most important aspects of their belief system and are no longer getting their ultimate moral rules from their religion. Anyone who creates a personal morality by parroting something from an old book is lazy, ignorant and often immoral.

In the past religion was a best attempt at explaining the world and creating rules for living. It turns out that it wasn’t at all successful with the first aim and only slightly better with the second. We now have other tools to tackle these issues: science to explain the world, and philosophy to deal with morality and other less well defined issues.

It might be that these tools are in turn replaced with something even better in the future, but at the moment they are the best we have. Anyone who insists on continuing to use religion to explain the reality of the world (such as insisting that creationism is an explanation for life on Earth) or to provide moral answers (such as saying homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so) are being wilfully ignorant and usually bigoted as well.

Hitchens used to ask his opponents and audiences a question to make these points on morality a bit less abstract. He would ask people to name a good or moral statement or action which can only be made by those who believe in a god, then to name a stupid or evil action which only believers could make. Few people could come up with anything very convincing to answer the first question but everyone could immediately think of examples of the second.

As an example of a bad action which requires religious belief consider this obvious example: only people who think they will get a reward in the next life will sacrifice their lives by joining a crusade or becoming a suicide bomber. That’s not the sort of behaviour a non-believer is likely to indulge in.

But answers to the first challenge are a lot more difficult to find. A common one was exorcism. Only believers can perform this rite. But surely this cannot be counted as a good action, and the fact that some believers dared to even suggest the idea shows how out of touch they really are.

Another answer was a lot better though. One person suggested that great poetry and other art was created by believers. That is a good point. There is a lot of great art, music, architecture, and poetry which was created directly because of religious belief.

There is a counter to this argument though. A lot of great art hasn’t been inspired by religion too, and some which seems like it might be in fact wasn’t. For example, Verdi wrote his Requiem even though he was an atheist (or agnostic if you prefer that). At the very least you would have to say that people are inspired by many things, including religion, so if this is the only positive it hardly seems worth it!

The Hitch was a great debater and extremely knowledgable about most of his topic areas (he certainly knew his religion, history and politics but was weak on science and technology and sometimes didn’t respond to questions around areas such as cosmology and biology very well) but maybe his greatest advantage was just that he was right.

As I have said in the past to people who have complimented me on my debating skills: it’s a lot easier when the facts are on your side!

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