The Legacy of Christopher Hitchens

Some time ago Cosmic Skeptic released a collection of ten “timeless” quotes in honour of the late atheist’s birthday. Christopher Hitchens, if you don’t know (and I don’t blame you if you don’t), was maybe the most popular New Atheist, probably because of his entertaining way of speaking and writing. In the months after his death, Hitchens was still big news, and his popularity was still going strong, perhaps even stronger than before, no doubt inflated by the recency of his death. However, it feels to me that his memory has died down significantly, even among the most adoring New Atheist fans. Nevertheless, I thought I would evaluate the set of quotations, seeing where they’re wrong and where some nuggets of truth can be found.

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This is probably Hitchens’ most celebrated quote, which is ironic since it is a very irrational idea. It is guilty of the worst type of irrationality. I have already written a rebuttal of it here.

“Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus.”

This is certainly a contention that Christians can agree with. After all, when we stand before God on the day of judgment, “everybody was doing it” or “my pastor and church were doing it” I suspect will not be accepted as an excuse. Nevertheless, I think society today lionizes rebellion and a self-entitled anti-conformism too much. Being respectful of others at least to some extent means respecting their conventions and customs (depending on what those customs are) and not being loud and obnoxious about every little wrong you see. Having to challenge every little wrong you see and every little irrationality you observe in the lives of others will not only make you difficult to be around, it will actually make you a bad person.

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity . . . The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

This is a similar idea as the one before and subject to the same criticisms as above. One thing that always troubled me about Hitchens is that he spoke and wrote about stupidity as though it were a moral defect. This is a dangerous idea, because clearly stupidity is not a moral defect – it is something over which someone has no control and also for which people suffer through no fault of their own. And this sort of thinking encourages the notion that smart people are automatically better or more valuable than less intelligent people. I think the New Atheists have certainly encouraged this idea, whether consciously, semi-consciously or inadvertently. In his defence, Hitchens may simply be talking about deliberate stupidity – people who could do better if they took some more thought. Perhaps. But it still seems a problematic to me, especially because Hitchens never specified it as deliberate stupidity. The idea of not leaving unfairness unaddressed is a good principle, although I have to disagree with Hitchens’ method of doing it. Shouting abuse at the perpetrators of injustice from the pages of some high-flying periodical will be limited in its potential to effect change. And if your abuse prospers, you will be creating evils to replace the ones you addressed.

“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.”

Agreed.

“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should remain.

 Maybe.

“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.”

Hitchens often repeated this same idea in his talks. I don’t know why Hitchens thought that the mere existence of a creator with a plan makes us objects in a cruel experiment. It depends on whether the creator and his plan is good or evil. Hitchens might believe that any sort of metaphysical constraint or accountability that is more supreme than his power of choice is unbearable and that it represents a “celestial dictatorship” as he was also fond of saying. But this is mere assertion, and it actually seems to beg the question in favour of atheism, by assuming precisely that any constraint on our choices or any higher accountability is automatically bad. The idea that we are created sick and commanded to be well only applies to a particular way of conceiving the Doctrine of Original Sin, or Ancestral Sin. If I’m right it was originally formulated by Augustine. Adam sinned and the rest of humanity is born under the curse of Adam’s sin. In other words, every person is born sinful. There are theological problems with this doctrine, and even though it is a widespread Christian belief, it is not the only one Christians adhere to. In other words, this is not the only Christian belief and Hitchens’ point does not disprove or invalidate the doctrine. Also, even if you assume ancestral sin, it is not God who created humanity evil; it is humanity who corrupted humanity. By saying that God creates us sick, it clearly misrepresents the doctrine.

“Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.”

I don’t think there is much to argue with here, except to say that if this statement is true, its truth is trivial. To say that it is possible for atheists to hold moral beliefs and do moral actions does not imply that atheism is true or even that most atheists are good people.

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”

The set of universal moral values are actually quite few, and it certainly could not support most of the moral notions that we have in the West. The notion of human rights is very recent and developed only in one culture ( even if it was later disseminated or adopted by other cultures). If you think that compassion for the poor and weak is a universal aspect of human decency, you don’t even need to exit your own cultural heritage to see that this is false. Read Greek and Roman philosophers on compassion. You must also read about how cruel the Roman and Medieval worlds could be. We know that there were child sacrificing cults in the ancient Semitic world, and we know that South American civilizations practiced human sacrifice until right before the colonial period (i.e. before Western values were mostly adopted by South American cultures). Pre-Christian Scandinavia also practiced human sacrifice. In order to think that it is moral intuition or sentiments that provide us with our morality reveals someone who either doesn’t know much history or hasn’t really processed what they have read.

“If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

I’m sure there is truth to this, but it seems based on the commonly repeated New Atheist talking point that religion has mostly to do with what your parents believe. Once again, if it is true, it is uncertain what it is supposed to imply. It certainly doesn’t imply that Christianity or any specific religion is false. It is probably true that belief in certain scientific truths would have been concentrated in the Western World in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does it mean anything if someone were to say “ You only believe in the law of gravitation because your teachers taught you! Ha!” Is this supposed to be a significant point? Pretty much all of our knowledge is gained through authority figures such as teachers and parents when we are young. But is it true that Christianity is mainly spread from parents to children. Some thought beyond the present should reveal how wrong this is. If religion is mainly transferred from parents to children, it is mystery how Christianity became the largest religion in the world and crosses cultural and national barriers. Do New Atheists truly believe this happened mainly through reproduction? (Those poor Christian women.) Indeed, if religion was mainly transferred through parents, then Christianity should still be mostly concentrated in the Middle East and the Mediterranean world.

“The four most over-rated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex, and picnics.”

I like picnics.

All in all, Hitchens sometimes said profound things. But his talent lay in turning a phrase, more than in making an argument.

2 thoughts

  1. We always tend to think those who cannot concur with our point of view are stupid How often we hear ‘ oh don’t be so stupid ‘. Mr Hitchens was exceedingly out spoken , sometimes irritatingly so , but he meant well and I think he rated himself as a good moral teacher.
    Now we live in an age where everyone must go to university stupidity has been banished equality has crushed it.
    The idea that all men are equal is quickly dispensed with by a look at the news and I’m not so sure we all really want equality but it sounds a nice concept.
    I think you may be misreading the decency quote he means there were decent people before the major world religions arrived . I would liked to have asked him if there ever was a time before religion but then I expect we would have a job to say just what religion is.

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  2. Hi flawedman. Thanks for commenting. Yes it’s true that people say that those who have a different point of view are just stupid. I believe that’s wrong. I don’t know about Hitchens’s motivations ( and I don’t think you know what motivated him either, whether he meant well or not). We can only judge what we see people do. The world of motivation and intention is mostly hidden from us. But let’s assume that he was motivated rightly. It is possible to do wrong things out of the right motivations. So I don’t think it is really relevant whether he did them out of a good or bad motivations. They’re still wrong.

    There is a difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance can be remedied by education but stupidity cannot. There is some IQ research which indicates some ability to change it but I believe the widespread consensus is that it is mostly not mutable ( as in, Increasing your level of intelligence). But whether or not this is correct, it is clear that there are some people who are mentally retarded and do not have any normal intelligence and there is no realistic chance of changing this. Should they be regarded with contempt? Also, even if you’re right that education and intelligence is the same thing, it is still wrong to show contempt for people who are uneducated or unlearned. It is true that lots of people in the West have the opportunity to go to university. In many places in the world this is not the case. Nor is it contemptible if someone chooses for example to do skilled trades instead of going to university.

    I don’t believe I am misreading the quote. He says that human decency is not derived from religion but precedes it. This is very general and implies that human decency does not come from religion at all, that the decency in religion is a consequence rather than a cause of human decency. His claim is definitely stronger than that there are merely decent people apart from religion.

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