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Christopher Hitchens: Quotations by Which to Remember Him, including his view of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity

Christopher Hitchens

Hitchenʼs book tour for God is Not Great took a few miraculous turns, including receiving a P.R. boost from Jerry Falwellʼs demise, and ended with a chance encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and discovering to everyoneʼs surprise, support for Hitchenʼs attack on religion:

Itʼs been weeks on the road, and after a grueling swing through Canada I am finally home. I tell the wife and daughter thatʼs it: no more god talk for a bit—letʼs get lunch at the fashionable Café Milano, in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.). Signor Franco leads us to a nice table outside and I sit down–right next to the Archbishop of Canterbury. O.K., then, this must have been meant to happen. I lean over. “My Lord Archbishop? Itʼs Christopher Hitchens.” “Good gracious,” he responds, gesturing at his guest– “we were just discussing your book.” The archbishopʼs church is about to undergo a schism. More than 10 conservative congregations in Virginia have seceded, along with some African bishops, to protest the ordination of a gay bishop in New England. I ask him how itʼs going. “Well”–he lowers his voice–“Iʼm rather trying to keep my head down.”

Well, why, in that case, I want to reply, did you seek a job that supposedly involves moral leadership? But I let it go. What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality? And thereʼs something hopelessly innocent about the archbishop: he looks much more like a sheep than a shepherd. What can one say in any case about a religion that describes its adherents as a flock?

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, my book is selling particularly well in the Bible Belt, on a “know thine enemy” basis. And I get encouraging letters from atheists in foxholes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from people who feel that they are at last emerging from some kind of closet. One day a decent candidate for high office will say that he is not a person of faith, and the sky will not fall.

Everywhere I speak, I find that the faithful go to church for a mixture of reasons, from social to charitable to ethnic, and take their beliefs à la carte or cafeteria-style, choosing the bits they like and discarding the rest. The Christianity Today Web site, which has hosted me in an online debate with its champion Douglas Wilson for the past two months, writes to say that Mr. Wilson wants to send me a wheel of Washington State cheese, as a token of appreciation. A nice surprise. Blessed are the cheese-makers.

God Bless Me Itʼs a Bestseller!

Hitchens argues that Genesis is the mundane work of ignorant humans:

Man is given “dominion” over all beasts, fowl and fish. But no dinosaurs or plesiosaurs or pterodactyls are specified, because the authors did not know of their existence, let alone of their supposedly special and immediate creation. Nor are any marsupials mentioned, because Australia–the next candidate after Mesoamerica for a new “Eden”–was not on any known map. Most important, in Genesis man is not awarded dominion over germs and bacteria because the existence of these necessary yet dangerous fellow creatures was not known or understood. And if it had been known or understood, it would at once have become apparent that these forms of life had “dominion” over us, and would continue to enjoy it uncontested until the priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity.

God is Not Great

Religion of every kind involves the promise that the misery and futility of existence can be overcome or even transfigured. One might suppose that the possession of such a magnificent formula, combined with the tremendous assurance of a benevolent God, would make a person happy. But such appears not to be the case: unease and insecurity and rage seem to keep up with blissful certainty, and even to outpace it.

Christopher Hitchens— The Atlantic, April 2003

Hitchens on Mere Christianity

…On C. S. Lewisʼs classic nonfiction best seller, Mere Christianity; taken a look at it lately? Try this:

First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter aned space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this carth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us.

On this evidence - which sounds like a semiliterate peasant stammering to repeat what heʼd heard of a very faint radio broadcast on Darwin or Albert Einsten – one would have to conclude that the process did not end up by producing creatures who were able to think, or at any rate, not always. What if, in reply, one were to be so vulgar as to offer a parody of Christian belief that was comparably low and uninstructed? It might read like this:

Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on putting them right again.

I would apologize for this pathetic caricature of faith-based life, if I had in fact written it. But it is Lewisʼ own best shot, and there is plenty more where that came from. He could knock out this stuff without even bothering to switch on what there was of his brain.

…Lewisʼ laughable and sinister book is a great joy and comfort to all those who have noticed the paper-thin morality and the correspondingly fanatical assertions of the religious. It should be a project of all skeptics and humanists and heretics to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible, most especially the young and impressionable. We, and not the “faithful” should be reprinting it and reaping the royalties.

Hitchens on the Closing Years of Thomas Paine (the man who helped inspired the American Revolution with his book, Commonsense, and who inspired colonial soldiers with the line, “These are the times that try menʼs souls,” and also a deist and author of a book that questioned the truth of the Bible, The Age of Reason that became a bigger bestseller, percentage-wise, than Hitchenʼs own book, God is Not Great)

Paineʼs closing years, pitiful as they were, contained one triumph. He might have become a scarecrow-like figure. He might have been forced to subsist on the charity of friends. He might have been denied the right to vote by a bullying official, when presenting himself at the polling station, on the grounds that the author of Common Sense was not a true American. But as the buzzards began to circle, he rallied one more time. It was widely believed by the devout of those days that unbelievers would scream for a priest when their own death-beds loomed. Why this was thought to be valuable propaganda it is impossible to say. Surely the sobbing of a human creature in extremis is testimony not worth having, as well as testimony extracted by the most contemptible means? Boswell had been to visit David Hume under these conditions, because he had been reluctant to believe that the stoicism of the old philosopher would hold up, and as a result we have one excellent account of the refusal of the intelligence to yield to such moral blackmail. Our other account comes from those who attended Paine. Dying in ulcerated agony, he was imposed upon by two Presbyterian ministers who pushed past his housekeeper and urged him to avoid damnation by accepting Jesus Christ. “Let me have none of your Popish stuff,” Paine responded. “Get away with you, good morning, good morning.” The same demand was made of him as his eyes were closing. “Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?” He answered quite distinctly: “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” Thus he expired with his reason, and his rights, both still staunchly defended until the very last.

Thomas Paineʼs Rights of Man: A Biography

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