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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 has perpetuated 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 Christians who want pseudoscience taught to American children with taxpayers’ money and with the Vatican saying, “Well, AIDS in Africa may be bad, but condoms would be worse.” I thought that the moment had arrived when enough people might be willing to fight back. I and others—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris—all came to the same conclusion independently. It seems we weren’t completely wrong.
Sewell: In God Is Not Great you write that you began to question religion when, at age 9, you experienced the ignorance of your scripture teacher, Mrs. Watts, and then later, when you were 12, your school’s 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?
Hitchens: No. I think I may 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 us just never can bring ourselves to take religion seriously. And since people often defend religion as natural to humans, the corollary holds, too: there must be respect for those who simply can’t bring themselves to find phrases like “the Holy Spirit” more meaningful.
Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is a generally 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 any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
Hitchens: 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.
Sewell: 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 humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?
Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of Statements That Have No Meaning—At All. Christianity, remember, was really founded by Saint 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 to convince me. 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.