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Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything has made him arguably the nation’s most notorious atheist. Already renowned as a political columnist for Vanity Fair, Slate, and other magazines and known for his frequent punditry on the political TV circuit, Hitchens’s barbed manifesto against religion has earned him debates across the country, often with the very fundamentalist believers his book attacks.
But as a precursor to his upcoming January 5 appearance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Monthly invited Hitchens to an encounter more befitting the Rose City: a conversation with a liberal believer—Marilyn Sewell, the recently retired minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland. A former teacher and psychotherapist and the author of numerous books, Sewell, over 17 years, grew Portland’s downtown Unitarian congregation into one of the largest in the United States.
Marilyn Sewell: Your book, God Is Not Great is a sweeping indictment of how religion perpetuates war, exploitation, and oppression throughout history. What inspired you to turn from critiquing politics to critiquing religion?
Christopher Hitchens: My political life has been informed by the view that if there was any truth to religion there wouldn’t really be any need for politics. A crucial element in the way I write, as well as what I write about, has been informed by my atheism. Why this book at this time? By the early part of this century I became convinced that religion was back in a big way with the Parties of God—as they dare call themselves—not just in Iran and among Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, but with Messianic Jewish settlers trying to steal other people’s land in the name of God to try and bring on Armageddon with help from Christian forces in the United States. These forces overlap with the same Christians who try to want pseudo-science taught to American children with taxpayers money and with the Vatican saying that, “Well AIDS in Africa may be bad, but condoms would be worse.” I thought that the moment—with a capital M—had arrived when enough people might be willing to to fight back. And I and others—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—all came to the same conclusion independently. Let’s not boast, but it seems we weren’t completely wrong.
In the book you write that, at age nine, you experienced the ignorance of your scripture teacher Mrs. Watts and, then later at 12, your headmaster tried to justify religion as a comfort when facing death. It seems you were an intuitive atheist. But did you ever try religion again?
I belong to what is a significant minority of human beings: Those who are—as Pascal puts it in his Pensées, his great apology for Christianity—“so made that they cannot believe.” As many as 10 percent of is just never can bring themselves to take religion seriously. And since people often defend religion as natural to humans (which I wouldn’t say it wasn’t, by the way), the corollary holds too: there must be respect for those who simply can’t bring themselves to find meaning in phrases like “the Holy Spirit.”
Well, could it be that some people are “so made” for faith. and you are so made for the intellectual life?
I don’t have whatever it takes to say things like “the grace of God.” All that’s white noise to me, not because I’m an intellectual. For many people, it’s gibberish. Likewise, the idea that the Koran was dictated by an archaic illiterate is a fantasy. As so far the most highly evolved of the primates, we do seem in the majority to have a tendency to worship, and to look for patterns that lead to supernatural conclusions. Whereas, I think that there is no supernatural dimension whatever. The natural world is quite wonderful enough. The more we know about it, the much more wonderful it is than any supernatural proposition.
The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.
Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”
I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.