In June 2010, I heard that Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to do a talk and book signing at a Borders bookstore in San Francisco. I considered going and having him sign a copy of his book Hitch-22, then hand him a copy of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul. But just days before he was to appear, he canceled his book tour without explanation.
A couple of weeks later, I was saddened to hear that Hitchens had been diagnosed with cancer. He died two months ago, on December 15, 2011. His death was due to pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer.
I have admired Christopher Hitchens for years. It took great moral courage for him to shelter novelist Salman Rushdie in his home in 1993 after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. And it took great physical courage for Hitchens to voluntarily undergo waterboarding so that he could write about the experience in Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, Hitchens got it wrong about God and the soul.
After the publication of his book God Is Not Great, I frequently found myself in the odd position of defending the razor-tongued atheist from some of my devoutly religious friends who were exasperated with his views. I’d ask them, “How can you be angry with Hitchens for believing what he feels compelled to believe, based on the evidence he’s seen?”
And then my friends were exasperated with me!
Hitchens formulated his views on God in much the same way he arrived at his political views. He observed, read, and debated great minds. He’d follow logic and evidence wherever it led. Whenever I watched Hitchens debate, I came away convinced he was daring his opponents: “Prove me wrong.”
But as near as I can tell from his writings and speeches, Hitchens was completely unaware of the evidence I present in my book God and Soul. Though I didn’t agree with him on the question of God and soul, I genuinely liked him. I enjoyed reading his work and hearing him speak. I wanted him to live, and I’m very sad that he’s gone.
In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on—all of these evils were rationalized on religious grounds. But does religion really poison everything? It depends on how you define “religion.”
If, by “religion,” we mean a tribalistic social unit organized around certain beliefs, rites, rituals, and traditions, defended by figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure that demands philosophical conformity within the group and that practices hostility toward those outside the group.)
But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount—teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us—then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything.
In fact, another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, writes in The God Delusion, “Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.” In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even an atheist can endorse.
So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth. As physicist Freeman Dyson explains:
We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.
When evil people want to do evil things—when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, oppression, or terror—they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.
There is no evil in the Sermon on the Mount. The evil is in people—in human nature itself. That’s what poisons everything.
Next, in Part 2: How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God.