Tribute to Hitchens / Open thread on AE #740

Tracie and I finished off the year with one final show last night.  We had a lot of fun with this episode.  In case anybody wanted to read it, I’ve copied what I said about Christopher Hitchens below the fold.

Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday at the age of 62.  As the author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and an outspoken atheist debater, Hitchens was a well respected figure in the international atheist community.  Of all the things people have written about him in the last few days, I think the most fitting tribute was a headline in the satirical newspaper “The Onion.”  There was no article, just a headline, and it said: “Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate To Christopher Hitchens.”

When I watch people debate atheism, I am often left frustrated by their approach, and sometimes feel like they tried too hard to be nice, or didn’t hammer home a point that ought to have been made.  Among the debates I’ve seen, I’ve always felt that Christopher Hitchens was the least frustrating and most confident speaker I’ve had the privilege of watching.

Hitchens lived with esophogeal cancer for about the last two years.  As such, he had the luxury — or more accurately the burden — of knowing roughly when he would die.  In April, Hitchens was unable to attend the American Atheist convention, so instead he sent along a letter, which many people saw as his own self-eulogy.  I think it’s fitting that we should read it now.

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.


Christopher Hitchens

At the same time that I express my admiration of Christopher Hitchens, I don’t want to whitewash the fact that he was a controversial figure even among atheists.  He was a strong advocate of the Iraq War, and in 2007 he denounced the attendees at a meeting of the Freedom From Religion Foundation as being soft on Islam, and being too weak to commit to an all out clash of civilizations, and strongly recommended that we go on to declare war on Iraq.  He called one questioner incredibly stupid for not understanding that every Muslim killed is a Muslim we don’t have to fight.

I bring this up not to denounce Hitchens, but only to point out that he was a complex individual with strong convictions, who never hesitated to piss off any person or group he spoke to.  He was also, however, very open to changing his mind.  While he was initially a supporter of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, in 2008 he set out to prove that it wasn’t torture, and so he submitted to being put through the process by a group of veterans.  The followup article he wrote in Vanity Fair was titled, simply, “Believe Me, It’s Torture.

One of the accusations we get all the time when we speak out as atheists is that atheism is just another religion; that instead of God, we worship money, or science, or ourselves; and our religious figures are people like Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, and Christopher Hitchens.  I think it’s important to remember that the atheist movement doesn’t have idols, only people who earn respect based on the quality of their ideas.  I appreciated Hitchens for who he was.  I think he would have sneered at the idea of being idolized, but we’ll miss him.  He’s not in heaven, he’s not in hell, all that remains of him is in our memories now.

Of course, we all know that Christopher Hitchens was one of the lucky ones.  This is the last episode of The Atheist Experience before the year 2012, which is really truly we mean it this time the end of the world.  We’ll all go out in a blaze of Roland Emmerich-style special effects.

Hitch, here’s to ya.  (Drink)


  1. says

    He’s not in heaven, he’s not in hell, all that remains of him is in our memories now.

    This is, of course, wrong. We have his words. A lot of them. If many of the eulogists are right and Hitch was the English language’s greatest living essayist (and I find it hard to come up with competitors) then we will have them for a long, long time to come. Hit wit, eloquence and intellect will continue to shine through them.

  2. LawnBoy says

    I have another thought on the question about YouTube videos, that atheist videos he sees are dominated with Likes and religious videos he sees are dominated with dislikes.

    Is it possible that there’s a selection bias here? If one tends to find religious videos based on links from atheist blogs, etc., then wouldn’t those be the videos that other atheists have also found? Perhaps there are many other religious videos that are viewed mostly only by other co-religionists, and then those videos are liked.

  3. Kazim says

    That’s possible, but I don’t think it can all be attributed to self-selection. In some cases, Christians have been so bothered by the critical reception on mainstream venues like YouTube that they’ve gone out of their way to create separate sites like GodTube to keep from having to face it.

  4. says

    Twas a good episode, I thought. Like with the first theist caller there, there’s such a lack of critical thinking, which is apparently SOP for most theists.

    Tracy, as usual, was able to cut to the heart of the matter. What frustrates me about a lot of discussions with theists is how much smoke screen and obfuscation and digressions all of a sudden burst forth like a ruptured dam. Discussions like that call are refreshingly clear and uncluttered.

  5. says

    Great episode. You guys had some really good callers.

    One caller was asking about the how the world came to be with a builder and he never got an answer (although to be fair, he did get several other questions answered.)

    Of course, if a mind (with the ability to create galaxies) was responsible for everything, it begs the question: where did that (those) mind(s) come from? And we are to believe that somehow that mind was in contact with the authors of what would become the Old Testament?

  6. rrpostal says

    Another thing I notice is that many times I’ll try to comment on theistic videos only to be blocked. Dissent appears not welcome. I rarely get a “pending approval” message at atheist/ skeptic ones. From my sampling size it seems accurate to think this may hold up. The “Shock” guy alone has 10,000 videos where he only accepts comments from adoring hangers on and I’d wager most of us are outright banned. But he’s far from the only one.

  7. Michael D. says

    Equally obnoxious are all the theistic videos without commenting at all. Just sit back and listen people no need to have an opinion of your own. I suppose its better then just the illusion of open comments but not by much.

  8. Kol says

    I’m just finishing up the podcast. All I can say is you people make me look forward to Mondays. That’s not a small task.

    I think the last caller may be referring to this:

    If you’re reading and have taken Tracie’s and Russell’s advice, mention the thought experiment when you contact someone qualified in the field.

    Indeed, contact someone at a local university and explain the question you need answered. It worked for me when headlines were screaming about a possible asteroid collision. I called the astronomy department, asked for orbital parameters so that I could plot them locally and was given the name of some guy named Marsden. Nice guy.

    The stuff religion teaches us from birth is simply myths concocted to fill in the gaps in our understanding of reality.

    We have a lot to learn.
    Look forward to the learning process and fill the gaps with measurable observations instead of God-Cement.

    Best of luck.

    Wonderful finale for the year, AXP.

    Many are grateful for you efforts and justifiable passion.

    See you next year.

  9. says

    There was a fascinating thread running through this show. The last caller said that religion is on the decline in Europe… if only it were true!

    Like the caller from Costa Rica, Christopher Hitchens was born in a country that does not have separation of church and state. In Britain, the head of state is also the head of the national church. Senior clerics are granted lifelong seats in the upper house of parliament. Religious schools are funded entirely from public money and select pupils based on the professed religious beliefs of their parents… indeed, secular parents often feign religious beliefs in order to get their children into the best (or least awful) local schools.

    I have visited America many times, and have sometimes been shocked at the “in-your-faceness” of the religion there. For example I once saw a *gigantic* road-side billboard in Alabama that stated simply “Go to church or go to Hell”… wow! Yet the separation of church and state is a fantastically valuable freedom that almost *no* other country permits its citizens. The work that the Atheist Experience does to defend that right cannot be overestimated.

    Hitchens naturalised as a US citizen because he said that the American Revolution is the only one that still matters. I can only hope it catches on elsewhere in the world.

  10. Kol says

    Hitch is proof that even well-versed HUMANS don’t hold the keys to a magic kingdom of wisdom.

    That statement required a minor correction.

  11. comma says

    Seriously? 90% of what makes Hitchens interesting is his rehtoric, not his arguments. His arguments were often really stupid and dishonest, it’s the way he set them up that is interesting.

    The idea that Hitchens was an avatar of dispassionate, reasoned debate is just ridiculous. He was a raging imperialist, genocide advocate, and a misogynist.

    I don’t even think he was an intellectual. He was a well-written pundit, but it’s not like he made any contributions to any field of art or science.

    Hitchens was an interesting and amusing person, and I like some of his books a fair amount. But the hagiography is getting ridiculous.

  12. MW says

    Great episode! I loved how you handled the first theistic call and made it an entertaining, nice and respectful discussion. Happy holidays!

  13. warren grubb says

    I love that she spots when they are asking questions they don’t have answers to and, thus, throws them right back at the caller.

    It usually becomes clear that either they are trying to use an argument they don’t even understand, or they are trying to set up a false dichotomy where any answer leads to a God of the Gaps conclusion.

  14. kik says

    I really enjoyed the conversation with the theist caller from Canada. I do wish that Tracy and Russell would have given him an extra message to think about after the discussion. He started out by claiming that becoming religious (or “spiritual”) turned his life around. But if there’s no god, then it was *he himself* who is responsible for improving his life, probably together with a supportive community. And if he is already capable of effecting such major changes in life, what else is he capable of? Credit should be given where credit is due. I think that is a much more positive and powerful message than charity from a fickle, omnipotent, but inattentive deity.

  15. TStarGermany says

    “Every Muslim killed is a Muslim we don’t have to fight”
    Is that a direct quote ? That doesn’t sound like Hitchens and I couldn’t find this quote anywhere on the net.

    One thinks that kind of comment would hit the news pretty quickly.

  16. TStarGermany says

    Well, I read the article and to call this statement “out of context” would be a euphemism.
    In my book, the statement is false, very close to -defamation- and at best -lose babble-.

    If Myer’s narration is correct, Hitchens’s stated, that the way to fight a nuclear armed theocracy Iran is to kill as many of these crazies as possible, to force them into submission by the sheer numbers of their casualties.

    That is not the same as the general statement
    “Every muslim killed is a muslim we don’t have to fight”.

    Not even close.

    I find it horrific to see that this unchecked content has found its way into the “atheist’s experience” tv show in the form of an outright-false non-quote.

  17. Kazim says

    What do you mean, not even close? This is precisely what PZ said: “Hitchens accused the questioner of being incredibly stupid (the question was not well-phrased, I’ll agree, but it was clear what he meant), and said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you”

    I’ll cop to the fact that it was a second-hand quote, I wasn’t there, and PZ may not have reported it accurately. But even if it winds up wrong… “horrific?” Melodramatic much?

  18. TStarGermany says

    Well, I think it’s a BIG difference if someone quoted Hitchens or quoted someone who gave his false interpretation of Hitchens.

    “said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you”
    These are PZ Myer’s words, not Hitchen’s words. And the rest of Myer’s words can only lead you to 1 conclusion : That he falsely interpreted something Hitchens said as a “general” statement and not related to the context is was factually related to…

    That is a very unfortunate mistake, but it can only happen to someone who is not even vaguely familiar with Hitchen’s views and works on such matters. To state Hitchens calling for genocide alongside religious borders, is not just wrong, it’s the opposite of what he stands for.

    To help you what that context was:

    “We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.”

  19. Kazim says

    Thanks for providing the precise quote, and I remain convinced that your “horrified” hyperbole is based on hair splitting.

  20. Ergo Ratio says

    Hi, first time reader/commenter, but long-time watcher of your YouTube radio show archives. I just want to make a quick comment about the quantum mechanics call. The word “observer” is always thrown out there at the onset of all these discussions on this, but it is worth pointing out that the word “observer” in this context does not mean “being with an eye looking at something”, but rather just means “some definite particle bumped into this indefinite wave function.” In other words, any collapsed wave function is a potential “observer” in quantum mechanics, which is why quantum computers need to be especially shielded from outside radiation. A stray particle just wandering across the field of a quantum computation can collapse the wave function too early and influence the results.

  21. David says

    Was I the only one who thought that Mark from Ontario, CA was Mark from the “Austin Stone Church” again?

  22. Kazim says

    Probably not, since there are people who think that every theist caller is Mark from Austin Stone Church.

  23. mikespeir says

    I’ve seen Hitchens labeled “misogynist” elsewhere, too. Can you tell me exactly what he said or did to get him branded that way? I honestly don’t know. What causes me some disquiet, though, is that I’ve noted the tendency among some to slap people with the “misogynist” label who do little more than dare to suggest that the differences between men and women might sometimes be more than “cosmetic.”

  24. Stu says

    Did you see the amount of dislikes on Rick Perry’s “Strong” video? The Internet: Where religions come to die.

  25. says

    Well, he wrote an essay once titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” which he insists has been widely misunderstood. (It’s in Arguably.) I would argue that not finding women funny isn’t a sign of misogyny, it just means you don’t find them funny. Only one female comic, Sarah Silverman, has ever given me honest belly laughs. I have some female personal friends with sharp senses of humor. Most female stand-up comics just don’t do anything for me. Ellen de Generes is about as funny as a ream of typing paper. Maybe it’s just how they approach it, who knows.

  26. mikespeir says

    Yeah, I’ve seen that article since I commented here. (And now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before and had just forgotten.) Seems like a pretty slim reason to call the guy “misogynist,” though.

  27. theistnot says

    Great show. I have noticed that someimes callers, like the first, appear to really be searching out for advice. I think it would further the cause if more sensitivity is shown, as Tacie did, to show compassion and offer advice in such cases. Debate is good – we all love it – but sometimes you get a caller like the first who, for whatever reason, may not have thought out their reasonings well and are helped being guided. As fellow human beings, holding out a helping hand to guide, can be a wonderful counter to the theists who often think we are heartless, emotionless, uncaring people. Nothing can be further from the truth, and your forum can be a wonderful example of that. Thank you Tracie for being so helpful and understanding. You always treat callers respectfully and show you are interested in them as people, even if what they are saying is nonsense.

  28. theistnot says

    Spong comes out of the Episcopal tradition – he is not shy about that. However, rather than seeing the person of Jesus as a deity, he sees value in SOME of the messages that are attributed to Jesus. So, he seeing Jesus more from a philosophical perspective rather than a divity. Spond is a strong advocate against Fundamentalism as he sees it as an excuse by which people can use religion to dehumanize others. Spong is very much a Humanist – anything that diminishes humanity is something Spong finds abhorrent. SPong believes that if Christianity is to survive, it must adapt to the needs of people today and not live in the past. It must reject any attempts to dehumanize. One of his best books is “The Sins Of Scripture”.

  29. says

    Spong is a strong advocate against fundamentalism, and that he is welcomed into churches and can speak about that is wonderful. He was one of the first clergy to go to psychologists and ask for an explanation of what homosexuality is and try to figure out how to reconcile that with his faith. He is not beyond suggesting that people leave their churches. I would not call him a humanist. He has a blog that requires a paid subscription, and I cancelled after the trail membership because it was basically “modern” sermons. At the end of “Jesus for the Non-religious”, a book I highly recommend for theist or atheist, he shares a poem called “Christpower” that was based on a sermon he gave in 1974, then says, “That is, I believe the pathway to God, the God whom I have encountered in the profoundly human Jesus.”

    In that book, he deconstructs many miracles and provides alternative reasoning for why those stories were written and suggests you not believe them. He also provides a history of how seminary schools evolved over the last couple centuries to become places where students are overtly taught how the Bible came to us through men, but they also teach in a more covert way how to preach and run a church without passing that knowledge on to the congregants. I am thankful for his work but I can’t figure out how he has gone through all that and still believes in God.

    Because of that, I can only give this qualified endorsement. He is in a sense dangerous because he dismantles religion, but he stands as an example as someone who still believes the magic. Those are his followers and I doubt he will ever disappoint them. I have never heard anything more specific from him other than God exists and he loves Jesus and we can keep the good stuff. Its great that he provides a place for fundamentalists to go where they can drop the dogma and the hate but keep their fantasies, but he is also providing a place where people will stay stuck and not examine their lives or the harm that superstition causes.

  30. nude0007 says

    Well I must say that this was the best episode I have ever seen! Russell’s “eulogy” for Hitch (is that written somewhere on the net?) was great and then he and Traci both did excellent work responding to all callers, especially the first. I typically enjoy both of these hosts and they did not disappoint. I particularly liked how Traci stepped the first guy through finding out why he believed what he did and then explained that it was subjective. Superb!

  31. Paul says

    Dude. The Hitch was an awesome polemicist. Only a couple debates I was a bit disappointed, particularly because of the short time which of course did not allow Hitchens to articulate as well as the longer debates. He was a juggernaut. I don’t know whether or not he would sneer at idolizing him but goddamn he was on fire and pummeled through the theist arguments. I watched how he eviscerated John Lennox, bulldozed through Turek and spanked the crap out of D’Souza. He had the spit and vinegar that makes him known for the “Hitchslap” and no one else I’ve seen comes to the level intensity that I found from Hitchens nor the level of articulation. This guy had a great command of the english language, a unique style that I think made people want to listen to him. As one lady (forgot her name) put it, his style of english was “intoxicating”. He deserves his international respect as a free thinker, known as one of the greatest public intellectuals of our time he will no doubt go down into history along with the other names of the greats.


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