Hitchens on the Hopelessness of Religious Belief

Andrew Sullivan continues to post transcribed portions of a conversation he had with Christopher Hitchens at Hitch’s dining room table several years ago. The conversation is fascinating and, though I admire Sullivan in many ways, Hitchens is clearly getting the best of it. This passage really jumped out at me:

H: One can’t be neutral about religion. One can’t just say it’s wrong — one has to say it’s a wicked thing to desire. I mean, why would anyone want it to be true that one was subject to permanent round-the-clock supervision, surveillance, and possibly even intervention, all of one’s waking and sleeping life? And one couldn’t escape it by dying.

It’s worse than any kind of totalitarianism; it means you’re absolutely held as property, that you have no autonomy, that you throw yourself permanently on the mercy of somebody. That is the description of the servile condition; that’s why both Islam and Christianity were both perfectly adapted, and still are in many ways, to feudalism or absolute monarchy, which of course is one of feudalism’s counterparts.

I think this is exactly right. Nor do I find the least bit comforting the notion that God is in control of what happens to us. When someone suggests that something good happened to me (or them, or someone else) because God willed it to happen, or that something bad was avoided because God chose not to put me (or someone else) through such an ordeal, I find that horrifying rather than consoling. Because if that is true, then the same is true for every other person on earth. That means God is literally choosing to make Bill Gates rich while causing a child in Darfur to die of starvation, or someone in Cambodia to step on an old land mine and be torn limb from limb. It means we are the playthings of a deity who deliberately inflicts cruelty.

We would not accept such behavior from any human. If someone raised dogs and decided that one of them will be loved and fed while another will be fed into a wood chipper and a third would be thrown under a moving bus, not a soul would consider that person anything but cruel and barbaric. Yet they somehow find the notion of a God doing exactly that with every human that has ever lived to be a source of comfort rather than disgust. It baffles me.

27 comments on this post.
  1. Gretchen:

    Reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables:

    A gaunt Wolf was almost dead with hunger when he happened to meet a House-dog who was passing by. “Ah, Cousin,” said the Dog. “I knew how it would be; your irregular life will soon be the ruin of you. Why do you not work steadily as I do, and get your food regularly given to you?”
    “I would have no objection,” said the Wolf, “if I could only get a place.”

    “I will easily arrange that for you,” said the Dog; “come with me to my master and you shall share my work.”

    So the Wolf and the Dog went towards the town together. On the way there the Wolf noticed that the hair on a certain part of the Dog’s neck was very much worn away, so he asked him how that had come about.

    “Oh, it is nothing,” said the Dog. “That is only the place where the collar is put on at night to keep me chained up; it chafes a bit, but one soon gets used to it.”

    “Is that all?” said the Wolf. “Then good-bye to you, Master Dog.”

    Except in the case of religion, the Master is not even known to exist. His existence is stipulated by others who presume to speak for him.

  2. Reginald Selkirk:

    I must point out that here Hitchens has moved past a discussion of the facts, and is discussing how one ought to respond to those facts. We have agreed (for the sake of discussion), that the 12 ounce glass contains 6 ounces of liquid. Now: is it half empty or half full? Hitchens can make a case for how he responds, but I do not feel compelled to respond in the same way. This is as misguided as those theists who claim that all atheists should be nihilists like Sartre.

  3. Sastra:

    I know theists who hate the idea of an authoritarian god of Justice and instead exchange it for an enlightened Being of Love. But in both cases there’s the same underlying premise that “everything happens for a reason.” The assumption that this reason is always a good, wonderful, compassionate reason — one which would be (or even is) willingly chosen by every individual in possession of the facts — requires an awful lot of logical and rational twisting and blindness to actual suffering. You have to take every horrible event and figure out some way it had to happen in order to contribute to the universal happiness of everyone.

    I think the need to do that is a sort of slavery in its own way. It exhausts the moral inclination — and wears it out. You’re bound to a soul-sucking optimism which eventually hardens the heart and closes the mind. Having a cosmic purpose turns us into artifacts.

    Steven Pinker has pointed out that the historical rise of humanitarian compassion was a consequence of the new and secular view that “Shit Happens.” Not every bad or good thing is the result of a moral judgement from on high. We’re not cogs in a Justice Machine, or babies in a playpen teased for our own good.

  4. Sastra:

    Reginald Selkirk #2 wrote:

    Hitchens can make a case for how he responds, but I do not feel compelled to respond in the same way. This is as misguided as those theists who claim that all atheists should be nihilists like Sartre.

    Not as misguided, no — because Hitchens is invoking common human experience and values in the world and the theists are forced to argue against these in order to advocate nihilism as ‘correct.’ It’s not so much a matter of appealing to taste then as appealing to consistency. Think it through.

  5. jws1:

    Slightly off topic – the Pope is resigning, citing age.

    Anybody really believe that? Or does public pressure on issues like child molestation actually work?

  6. No One:

    We would not accept such behavior from any human.

    I have been saying this all along. We hold each other to a higher standard than we do the gods we create.

  7. Marcus Ranum:

    all atheists should be nihilists like Sartre

    Sartre? Nihilist? Don’t you mean existentialist?
    Sartre was a big fan of making unsupported (and unsupportable) assertions about people having things like “radical freedom” which a nihilist would never make, unless they were lying to you.

  8. laurentweppe:

    Yet they somehow find the notion of a God doing exactly that with every human that has ever lived to be a source of comfort rather than disgust. It baffles me.

    Never heard of the omniscient morality license? Sure, this dead puppy might look like a tragedy now, but unbeknownst to you, it will start a chain reaction which will stop 217 million years from now the rise to power of an octopus dictator. It’s like the extinction of the dinausaurs allowed primates to become the dominant tool users before the beavers learnt to split the atom and fucked up the Earth for good. Really, you people have no respect for the efforts done for you by your omnipotent betters.

    More seriously, what’s described here is the belief in an anthropomorphic micromanaging control freak: a subgenre of religiosity most beloved by fundies because they are themselves control-freaks with a powerful fetish for micro-managment but not so popular anywhere else.

    ***

    good-bye to you, Master Dog

    There’s a big problem with this aesop fable: the master of the dog is far from being toothless: The wolf is “free”, but most of his descendant will die, the Dog has a chain but its offsprings will keep on multiplying, because that’s what its masters want: only around 200.000 wolves remain around the globe today compared to over 300 million dogs, mostly because many humans decided that only the subservient branch of the Canis Lupus family deserved to prosper.

    If the religious extremists are so prone to use bullying if not outward murderous tactics, it’s because they perfectly know how to enforce their demands of craven submission: by making it harmful to resist them.

  9. Marcus Ranum:

    Sure, this dead puppy might look like a tragedy now, but unbeknownst to you, it will start a chain reaction which will stop 217 million years from now the rise to power of an octopus dictator

    I, for one, welcome our cephalopod overlords!

    But, seriously: it always blows my mind when people offer that tack. It’s as if they haven’t realized how weak and stupid their god would have to be, to create the universe fine-tuned to produce cephalopod dictators but so imprecisely as to need a puppy thrown into his own gears to adjust his own handiwork. To annoy them, I like to describe such people as “believers in the incompetent god”

  10. dingojack:

    Gretchen – Aesop forgot the end of the story:
    “…The next day the dog awoke from his sleep and, having attended a few matters, gamboled outside to play. Seeing some crows he thought chasing them would be a fine game, so he ran at them barking furiously. They rose into the air, crying as they went ‘welcome to feast, dog’!’ Then he saw it, the pecked-opened corpse of the wolf, it’s lean twisted form, it’s matted, dull fur, the dead eyes.
    But the dog didn’t eat. Why should he? He’d already been fed.
    He gamboled off, playing chasing with the crows for while, then having a nap under the shade of a tree, dreaming of the long life, good food, the rest of the pack and the bitches and how he would enjoy them for twice as long a any poor wolf would.
    Moral: Go ‘Gault’ if you want to, just don’t expect a long or happy life.”

    :/ Dingo,

  11. Gretchen:

    Dingo,

    It says right there in the story that the wolf was starving to death when he met the dog, and he refused to be domesticated anyway. Your addition is unnecessary. Nice try, though.

  12. dingojack:

    You implied the wolf was a hero for desiring freedom; I pointed out he was fool for not accepting the benefits of society (along with it’s minor disadvantages). Your condescension is given all it deserves:
    ‘Nice try though’.
    Dingo

  13. Bronze Dog:

    Yeah, the omnipotent overseer might sound good for naive kids who don’t think things through, but as an adult, especially one who’s seen the abuses of governments and lots of anime and video games where god turns out to be doing seemingly good things for the greater evil, it’s not so wonderful.

  14. jws1:

    Always a “starving” wolf, and never a bad-ass killer that has no problems locating meals. Wonder why this editing decision is made? Also, dipping oneself in the warm bath of mediocrity that the convenience of polite society offers might be a worse alternative to starvation. Starvation sounds horrible, but doesn’t last nearly as long as the slavish servitude the dog meekly accepts. In addition, what happens to the dog when the master finds a younger, newer, faster, stronger, smarter model?

  15. Gretchen:

    Dingo,

    Aesop wrote it, not me. And I think you read way too much into it. I posted it in reply to Hitchens comparing religion to living under totalitarian rule, not as a comment on government generally.

    I don’t think Aesop was an anarchist– it does say a lot that you read him that way, though.

  16. tsig:

    “In addition, what happens to the dog when the master finds a younger, newer, faster, stronger, smarter model?”

    Dog eat dog.

  17. Ray Ingles:

    Pets and children are under care, and aren’t allowed to do many things. But the difference is, children are expected to grow up eventually. If pets ever consider themselves equals, it’s a disaster and might necessitate their destruction. If a child never does, that’s a disaster.

    So, how could people ever be considered “children” of God? No, sheep and flock are excellent metaphors.

    Of course, sheep aren’t kept for the pleasure of the sheep. I’m sure they feel comforted until the knife comes down on feast day…

  18. dingojack:

    Aesop wrote in English? Who knew?*
    @@
    Dingo
    ——–
    * You reported an interpreted and translated version what ‘Aesop’ ‘wrote’, didn’t you?
    And, regardless of Aesop’s political views, your implication in such a report seemed fairly clear to me. As the moral says ‘Better starve free than be a fat slave’.But there are two (or more) ways of looking at it, isn’t there?

  19. Reginald Selkirk:

    Marcus Ranum #7: Sartre? Nihilist? Don’t you mean existentialist? …

    Actually I meant Nietzsche. My mistake. It doesn’t change my point, which was, “don’t tell me what kind of day to have.”

  20. Sastra:

    Ray Ingles #17 wrote:

    So, how could people ever be considered “children” of God? No, sheep and flock are excellent metaphors.

    No, I think a better metaphor for today’s believer is that of a pet. The “children” of God who are neither expected nor allowed to grow up or relate on the same level to the guiding authority are much more like precious and beloved pets than anything else in our experience. Our ultimate personal goal is to become like a slavishly obedient dog which wags its tail and goes into paroxysms of joy and gratitude over every small sign of attention and comfort, existing only for the purpose of basking in the Master’s presence and doing His bidding.

    It’s interesting how familiarity breeds indifference. Religious believers are used to and thus inured to the image of being like sheep with a shepherd — but the pet analogy is a new one to them and from what I’ve seen they don’t like it. They’re not like pets! Not at all! How insulting!

    But really, you can’t go on and on about how God is incredibly Other and superior and above us and out of our league and then bristle at the suggestion that our companionship is therefore not like real friendships or relationships we’re used to with our equals — nor even like parent and child — but more like that of owner and pet. In the language of the animal shelters, we are “looking for our forever home.”

  21. mobius:

    It astounds me that the Cristian Nation people keep insisting that the Constitution is full of Biblical principles. What the Bible is full of is principle of kingdoms and empires. “Lord” this and “King” that. As Hitchens said, the Bible supports absolute monarchy, not democracy and individual rights.

  22. uncephalized:

    Dingo:

    You implied the wolf was a hero for desiring freedom; I pointed out he was fool for not accepting the benefits of society (along with it’s minor disadvantages). Your condescension is given all it deserves:

    Um, a chain and collar is clearly the sign of a slave, not merely a “member of a society”. Which is not to mention that wolves indeed have a society–just not one that involves chaining up other wolves and forcing them to do the master wolf’s bidding. Wolves are not anarchists.

    I would indeed posit that people who choose death rather than a life of slavery are heroes, not fools.

  23. Modusoperandi:

    Marcus Ranum “It’s as if they haven’t realized how weak and stupid their god would have to be, to create the universe fine-tuned to produce cephalopod dictators but so imprecisely as to need a puppy thrown into his own gears to adjust his own handiwork. To annoy them, I like to describe such people as ‘believers in the incompetent god’”
    He only has to keep correcting the universe because you won’t stop touching your crotch.

  24. Ray Ingles:

    Sastra #20 – Hence why I contrasted pets with children in the first paragraph.

  25. Doug Little:

    Maybe someone needs to point this out to Ray Lewis.

  26. Sastra:

    Ray Ingles #24

    Yep — you nailed it.

  27. had3:

    How ironic if an all controlling deity does exist and Hitch’s lament was made through no choice of his own.

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