Can Civilization Survive Without God?
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens to address the question of whether civilization needs God.
Christopher is the author of more than 10 books, including his recent memoir Hitch-22 and the best-selling manifesto God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. He has written prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper’s, Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement and The Washington Post. In 2007, he received a National Magazine Award for his work for Vanity Fair.
Peter is the author of four books, including The Abolition of Britain, a major seller in that country, and the recently published The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, which he wrote to counter Christopher’s book God Is Not Great. A British journalist, author and broadcaster, he currently writes for The Mail on Sunday, where he is a columnist and occasional foreign correspondent. He is a contributor to (among others) The Spectator, Prospect, Standpoint, The Guardian, The New Statesman and the American Conservative. Once an atheist, he attributes his return to faith largely to his experience of socialism in practice, which he witnessed during his many years reporting in Eastern Europe and his nearly three years as a resident correspondent in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union. This year, he won the Orwell Prize for Journalism for foreign reporting.
Christopher Hitchens, Author, Contributing Editor to The Atlantic, Columnist for Vanity Fair
Peter Hitchens, Author, Columnist for The Mail on Sunday
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Navigate This Transcript:
Christopher Hitchens’ Opening Remarks
Peter Hitchens’ Opening Remarks
On the Decline in Civilized Society
On the Brothers’ Relationship
Christopher on Prayers of Support
On Nietzsche and Human Will
On the Separation of Church and State
Where Does Morality Come From?
LUIS LUGO, PEW FORUM ON RELIGION & PUBLIC LIFE: Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. And a special thanks to Christopher and Peter Hitchens for being with us today. I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are a project of the Pew Research Center, which is a nonpartisan organization that does not take positions on issues or policy debates — not even on the question of the existence of the Almighty. This event is part of the Pew Forum luncheon series in which we bring together journalists and important public figures for serious discussions on topics at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
Our format at these events is really very, very simple. We ask our guests to speak for about 10 minutes or so. Then we invite the rest of you to join in the conversation. I should point out that this event is on the record and we are taping it. And our friends at CNN, as you can see, are also videotaping it. So just be aware of that.
At this time, I would like to introduce Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is an advisor to the Pew Forum. Mike did all the heavy lifting in pulling the panel together, and so for that, he gets the privilege of moderating this event.
We have a few out-of-town journalists listening in via conference call, and I would like to welcome them as well. Those of you on the call who would like to take part in the discussion — and we encourage that — please e-mail your questions. We’ll make sure to work your questions into the queue.
Again, it’s great to have all of you here and via phone with us. We welcome you to the Pew Research Center. Mike, over to you.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE, ETHICS AND PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: Thank you, Luis, and welcome, ladies and gentlemen. If you have a bio right in front of you, which I know you do, I am not one of those moderators who then turns around and reads that bio to you. I think that you know why you’re here. You know both these men by reputation, and their biographies are in front of you. What I would like to do, though, is just give an anecdote or two about our speakers.
Christopher, as many of you all know, has a new book out now called Hitch-22: A Memoir. I went back and looked at some reviews of the book, and I thought I would try to find something in the reviews about Christopher. In The New York Times, the reviewer highlights Christopher’s great capacity for friendship. He’s very moved by the fact that in this autobiography Christopher has such wonderful things to say about his lifelong friends. In fact, the reviewer says, “He is also devoted to friendship. Hitch-22 is among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one’s friends … I’ve ever read. The business and pleasure sides of Mr. Hitchens’s personality can make him seem, whether you agree with him or not, among the most purely alive people on the planet.”
Then in another review in The New York Times, the reviewer says this: “The truth is, by Hitchens’s standards, his examination of how he and the left parted company is surprisingly unstrident and nonpolemical. It is, in fact, almost melancholic. He’s not claiming with his typical adamantine force that the balance sheets work out. And perhaps the strongest theme in Hitch-22 is just this — that sometimes the balance sheets are an unholy mess.
“By the time he got to Oxford, he was quite accustomed to ‘keeping two sets of books,’ passing out leaflets at car plants by day and racing off in fancier dress to the Gridiron Club by night. Christopher Hitchens may long to be a cogent man of reason, and he can certainly be a pitiless adversary. But he knows there are two sides to any decent match, and it’s touching in Hitch-22 to see how often he’ll race to the other side of the court to return his own serve, which may explain why, though he tries to be difficult, he’s so hard to dislike.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you someone who, even when you disagree with him politically or religiously, is so very hard to dislike. Christopher?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Oh, is it my turn already?
CROMARTIE: You’re on.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I want to say that I was very impressed while reading Peter’s latest book — to which I commend your attention — to see that he had written a particular — (audio break) — long before he can have read a book I hope you will also all be reading, which is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s extraordinary history of Christianity. I don’t know how many people here have tried it yet. But it’s really an admirable, beautifully written book.
It’s argued from the viewpoint of a fairly faithful Anglican, whatever that may turn out to be. It’s written, anyway, from a Christian perspective and with an absolutely extraordinary control of scholarship and prose. One of the things it says — very sobering for a Christian reader, I would suppose, to read is this:
There used to be a word which could be used unironically, and it was used, really, until not much more than a century, a century-and-a-half ago. People could say, and mean what they said when they said the word, Christendom. There was a Christian world. It had been partly evolved, partly carved out by the sword, partly defended by the sword, at some points giving way, at other times expanding. But it was a meaningful name for a community of belief and value that endured for many, many centuries — and has many splendors to its name.
And it’s all gone; no one could use that term now without either great nostalgia or some degree of irony. It’s all gone for the reason — MacCulloch gives exactly the reason Peter gives in his book. It destroyed itself, Christendom, and it destroyed itself by the tremendous criminal act of urging its members to kill each other in the outbreak of the Great War, as it was then known — but it wasn’t known that it would lead to a huge and even worse part two — in 1914, where the king-emperor of the British empire, who was also the head of the Church of England, and the Russian czar, who was also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and you follow the road —
There’s a partial exemption to be made here for the French empire, which didn’t precisely go to war in the name of its religion. But all the others did, and they leveled Christian civilization, European civilization, to a point where we still have no idea how much we’ve lost and how greatly our development as a species and as a society has been retarded. Out of the ruins of it, and striding across those poisoned ruins, came the great totalitarianisms that very nearly put an end to what remained of what could be called, by then certainly not Christendom, but of European and Russian civilization.
So this discussion that we’re having is by no means a new one and doesn’t involve such a new thought. We’ve had to wrestle for a very long time with the idea, what will we do about civilization; what will we do about values, ethics, morals; how will we teach them; how will we learn to live with one another in the absence of any real religious authority, any credible one, any one that’s worthy of the name, worthy of respect? This absence has been felt for a very, very long time, long before I was able to start writing about it.
I would just add, because I think it’s of extraordinary interest, that most of those empires have since passed away. Some of them won the war, nominally, and some of them lost it, nominally. They’ve more or less accepted the implied defeat in the long run, but two of them are in a rather sinister way, in my judgment, in the process of recrudescing — the Ottoman Empire, the caliphate, which very ill-advisedly went to war on the side of Wilhelmine German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism, throwing its own empire into the ring and declaring a world jihad from the throne of the caliph himself in Constantinople, making it obligatory on all the faithful to kill at least two nonbelievers as long as those nonbelievers were not German, Austrian or Hungarian, since it was the German, Austrian and Hungarian treasuries that were actually paying for the promulgation of this jihad.
Not only did the caliphate lose the war, but it lost its caliphate; it was dissolved by Mustapha Kemal [Ataturk]. But it’s interesting, it’s one of the two that’s trying to come back. Now you can go to a meeting in Kensington in London, if you wish, or on the Left Bank, or in the Kreuzberg in Berlin, and you can go to the caliphate club. It’ll be quite well attended; there’ll be quite a lot of people who say that the only salvation of humanity, the only true morality, the only real faith will come when all the Muslim umma is once again united — in fact, somewhat expanded, to take in, for example, Spain and other territories lost in previous combats.
It’s a real movement, and we’re going to be living with it for the rest of our lives. And those who think that faith-based is the prefix to something positive have a lot of argument, I think, ahead of them when they confront people who really mean it like that.
The second of the two empires that took part in this hecatomb of civilization in the name of their own religion, I mean the Russian one, shows real signs also of imperial nostalgia. No one here, I suppose, will have forgotten the moment when George Bush first met Vladimir Putin, who had chosen for the day to decorate his chest with his grandmother’s ornate Russian Orthodox crucifix, enough for the president to be convinced and to say that just to look into those beautiful limpid eyes was enough to see that he was a person of deep spirituality and sensitivity.
I think, by the way, in a fairly strong field, that’s one of the stupidest things any president has ever said. But now you don’t have to use much of your imagination when you see at the inauguration — when Putin wants to make someone prime minister, and when he says, how can he make himself czar again down the road — all these inaugural ceremonies are attended by black-cowled patriarchs swinging their incenses, demanding and getting in return privileges over other churches and other religions in Russia, restoring the same political and clerical balance, roughly, that did underpin Russian absolutism and autocracy until the great catastrophe of 1914.
And that’s coming back, too, and I think we don’t pay anything like enough attention to this fusion of traditional great Russian chauvinism and police regime with the clerical bodyguard and prop and stay and ally that it’s appointed for itself. But now it goes without saying that I’m speaking to the question of, how compatible is civilization with religion?
But so far, those are the only two empires that do show this sign of religious revival. It’s equally true to say that in huge parts of what we might call the industrialized modern world, tens of millions of people, in effect, live in a post-religious society. It’s hard to argue, I think, that they lead conspicuously less-civilized lives than their predecessor generations, than the ones of 1914 or 1939.
We haven’t yet conquered the problem of alienation or of anomie or of spiritual waste or of the fear of death. That has to be worked on. And we have a problem with moral relativism, that religion in its — inaudible — supremacy equally failed to solve. But I don’t think it’s really true to say that we live less-civilized a life than those of our predecessors who felt that there was a genuine religious authority that spoke with power.
It’s actually more than half a century since George Orwell wrote that the problem of civilization would be exactly this. He said, how will we now inculcate ethics, teach morality, to the people, to the majority, in the absence of a spiritual authority that commands respect and that has innate presence, that has the respect? With this decline in the authority of religion, how shall we teach ethics and morals?
It remains a very, very good question. I’d pause to mention that George Orwell himself, a very convinced atheist with a very strong and rooted respect for liturgy and for scripture and for tradition, made quite a good shot, in living his own life and evolving his own writing, in showing how, in fact, it is possible to lead an ethical existence without supernatural support or any appeal to it. But that might be choosing a rather too-favorable example to my own argument.
The truth is that if we just look at our own society, what do we really find? I was very interested to see the recent findings of our hosts today about how much Americans really know about their own religion — how few Catholics really know what the sacrament is, for example, how very few Protestants know who Martin Luther was, how very few — I was very surprised by this — how very few Jews appear to know that Maimonides was one of them — a Jew, as you will — and so forth.
But it shouldn’t really have surprised me, I don’t think. Thomas Jefferson said in what I used to think of as a disastrously non-prescient letter — I think it was to his nephew, Peter Carr — that there isn’t a young American born today who will not die a Unitarian.
Well, that’s one of the things T.J. didn’t get exactly right. But if you go around the public halls and the provincial theaters, as I do whenever I can, and engage with belief and the believers, you’ll find to an extraordinary extent that a kind of ethical humanism with a vague spiritual content is extremely commonplace. I can take 10 bucks off most Catholics by asking them the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. I’ve known all about how to do that long before Pew alerted me to the opportunity — (laughter).
There are people who combine a sort of Anglicism with a kind of Buddhism — it’s not at all uncommon — or Hinduism. I would say that the American Jewish population is in its majority effectively post-religious. It has, I would prefer to say, transcended its monotheism and become an ethical humanism. Certainly in the Reform, and to a great degree the Conservative congregations, that’s already the case, and everybody knows that on non-scriptural but, as it were, moral matters the American Catholic community has what is called by them a cafeteria Catholic, or an à la carte manner to it. In other words, it picks and chooses what might or might not be convenient to believe.
This is shallow, to be certain, and it’s thin, but I’m not sure if it isn’t preferable to a more decided, enforced orthodoxy, in connection with which, because I know I’m trespassing on your time, I’ll try and put it in the form of a question. It’s a thought experiment, if you like, which I’ll leave you with. Notice how in your daily newspaper intake, media intake, the much-maligned word secular has acquired on some pages of the newspaper, namely the international ones, almost the character of a positive. It has lost its pejorative character almost entirely.
In other words, suppose you were to read today that the new prime minister of Iraq was the leader of a secular force that didn’t have any religious allegiance. Would you be, A, terribly upset, B, enormously relieved or, three, thrilled beyond measure? (Laughter.) Ought you to be thinking this, those of you of faith?
What if someone was to say a leader would emerge in Iran, an opposition leader, with genuine support among the intellectuals and — inaudible — and the downtrodden workers and peasants, who was to say, you know what? I’ve never believed a word of this story about the upcoming 12th imam and his reappearance and his bringing of a reign of peace and redemption to the whole human race. I think that’s an absolute fairy story; I think that’s got about as much chance of being true as Santa Claus. Would you not be rather relieved to hear that there was such a person? I submit that you most certainly would.
If you heard today that Bibi Netanyahu on yet another of his fraudulent trips to Washington to humiliate our president and our Congress had dispensed with the services of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the religious partnership in his coalition, who calls for God to smite the Palestinians with a plague, for example — that this man no longer appointed the person who is in charge of housing and settlements, which a matter of fact, he does. Would you not think that was a step in the right direction? I submit that you would.
So it may be rude to leave you with a question rather than proposing an answer, but I think you’ll see why I have done so, and I now make way for a younger and more principled generation.
CROMARTIE: Thank you, Christopher. A biography of Peter is in front of you, but I would just call your attention to something that he wrote in his new book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. In April 2008, they had a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., on the existence of God — Christopher and Peter did — and he wrote this:
“Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected — and some might have hoped — that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not. At the end I concluded that while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was, and remains, more important to me than the debate itself.
“Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his Washington, D.C. apartment. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it. To my astonishment, Christopher cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it.”
Edward Lucas of The Economist described Peter as “a forceful, tenacious, eloquent and brave journalist. Readers with long memories may remember his extraordinary coverage of the revolution in Romania in 1989, or more recently his intrepid travels to places such as North Korea. He lambasts woolly thinking and crooked behavior at home and abroad.”
I give you, ladies and gentlemen, Peter Hitchens.
PETER HITCHENS: Thank you. The question, first of all, is what civilization might be. I doubt whether we can agree on that very quickly, since we probably can’t even agree on how to spell it on either side of the Atlantic. I would really like to start by explaining what it isn’t and to recount some experiences of mine in places where it had ceased to be.
The first one, picture me, if you will, in a blue suit and polished leather shoes sitting on top of a pile of cargo in a retired Soviet aircraft — rather, Soviet aircraft which ought to have been retired — landing at Mogadishu Airport one winter’s afternoon shortly before sunset. I won’t explain quite how stupid I had been to get myself into this position, but I was working at that time for a daily newspaper which had accepted a suggestion of mine, unexpectedly, that I should go to Mogadishu just before the U.S. Marines arrived, as they thought, to rescue the Somalis from famine and chaos.
Arriving at Mogadishu Airport is an experience some of you may have had and some of you may not. What I can tell you is this: There is no passport control. There is no baggage reclaim. In fact, as you land, sitting on top of the baggage, it slides the length of the aircraft as the brakes go on, which has made me take aircraft safety precautions with a total lack of seriousness ever since. It’s rather enjoyable, actually, when the baggage slides down the whole length of the plane.
You’re met at the end of the runway by a man from The Associated Press who is collecting all the water and supplies for his bureau, and by about 15 young men with AK-47s, who approach you and say, do you want a bodyguard? And you turn to the man from The Associated Press and you say, do I want a bodyguard? And he says, yes you do. If you don’t have a bodyguard, you’ll be dead and stripped by morning.
So we hire, myself and my colleague, John Downing, we hire one of these — in fact, two of these bodyguards — and a car with no upholstery, and we drive into Mogadishu just in time to see the departing ranks of the gangs and tribal formations which are supposed to be driven away by the arrival of the U.S. Marines. They are, in fact, going. They’re going into the sunset with their machine guns and their bandannas — they look like heavily armed rock stars — because they know that there is no point in being there when the Marines arrive, and they intend to come back later and do whatever it is they do.
We circle around, looking for some time for somewhere to spend the night. And only by great good fortune, because departing around a corner, my colleague sees somebody he knows from Sarajevo, do we find anywhere to spend the night. We are allowed into a compound which has been rented by some German television people, who share with us their camel stew and allow us to sleep on their concrete floor. I go to sleep listening that evening to the cries of dying people and the chatter of gunfire outside and hearing, in effect, what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found my way into the German compound.
The following day I find people to take me round; we’re nearly murdered on one occasion because my interpreter is from the wrong tribe. I see a scene of complete desolation. Every building has bullet holes, or indeed, shell holes in it. The main street is completely stripped bare of every feature of modern civilization. It’s just a stretch of mud with potholes in it with loping persons on it carrying weapons and no guarantee that they won’t use them on you. All the physical features of civilization and all the, as it were, intangible features of civilization — civility, safety, the ability to rely on your neighbor, the passing person, for any kind of kindness or consideration — have gone.
Eventually, with great relief, I got out of Mogadishu and I got home and was shown a few weeks afterwards a photograph of the same street which I had seen on that evening and on the following morning. Mogadishu having been an Italian colony, the street scene was actually rather Roman: pleasantly dressed people strolling along well-kept sidewalks, expensive cars gliding up and down a smooth road, telephone kiosks, pavement cafes.
The distance between that and what I saw was approximately 20 years, and it came to me and it has stayed with me ever since, whenever I walk down a pleasant street in Oxford, where I live, or indeed roam around Dupont Circle here or any major civilized city, this is not permanent. This is not here automatically. It is not as the air we breathe or the water we drink. It is as a result of certain unusual conditions which do not always exist and which have come about only for a very short period of time in a very limited number of places, and which even having been established, can come to an end.
This experience came on top of two years living in what, when I arrived, was the capital city of the Soviet Union and what, when I left, was the capital city of the Russian Federation. And there I also saw a very curious civilization which was not a civilization. That is to say, there was very little civility on the street between people. I was always struck by this. I would go down into what we’re always told in the tourist manuals is the magnificent Moscow Metro.
Because of the horrendously ruthless climate, the stations are guarded by very heavy wooden swing doors, or were in those days, and I would hold them open for people as they came into the stations behind me, and they would step back with a look of mistrust on their faces, as if I was playing a sort of joke on them. They were completely unused to the idea that anyone might do this. There wasn’t even that level of consideration. Nobody in any kind of public dealing would trust you. Almost everything had to be obtained through whispered threats and bribes.
By contrast, if you were invited into the homes of Russians, you were immediately led into a warm and entirely civilized circumstance of complete mutual obligation and trust in that very, very narrow and very, very small society. It was the family and the immediate friends where people knew whom they could trust and to whom they could show obligation and from whom they could expect it.
Now, you may say that this has to do with the climate or the economic conditions. I don’t happen to believe this, and if any of you would be kind enough to take a look at my book, I hope I have explained to some extent how this had come about. These two experiences, one on top of the other, persuaded me that it was worthwhile to think of what it was in our civilization that we ought to value.
There was one other thing, and Christopher will be slightly familiar with part of this. When we were growing up in the early 1960s and late 1950s, we lived for a short while in a very pleasant suburb of what was then the British naval base at Portsmouth. Now that we no longer have a navy, it is no longer that but it was then, and it was a very secluded, soft, comfortable, safe place in which we could wander about unsupervised for hours. Our parents could send us off and not worry about what would become of us. I can’t imagine, actually, anywhere more typical of English suburbia at the time.
While I was in Moscow, I had access to an immensely elaborate precursor of the Internet, the wire services that my newspaper received, one of them being the Press Association, the domestic one. And I was astonished one evening to be reading the wire services and to see the name of this suburb, Alverstoke, come up in a story. In that story what had happened was that somebody had been involved in an altercation with a group of people going past his front yard who had been kicking his garden fence in. As a result of trying to tell them to stop doing this, he had been kicked to death. And I thought: Alverstoke — kicked to death — what has happened to the country that I grew up in?
When I got back, I found that there was more and more of this sort of thing going on. Any of you who are interested, I urge — I haven’t got time to go into the cases now — to Google the cases of two people, one, Fiona Pilkington and her daughter, strangely named Francecca, and the other, a man called Garry Newlove, Garry with two R’s, and you will see that in large parts of England, particularly in the poorer parts, the behavior of individual human beings towards one another has sunk to levels not far distant from the Stone Age.
Mr. Newlove did very much as the person in Alverstoke did. There were people misbehaving in the street outside, and he went and remonstrated with them, and they beat him to the ground — and this phrase occurs very often in newspaper reports in Britain — they then kicked his head as if it were a football until he died.
In the case of Fiona Pilkington, her daughter was disabled and not very well-favored to look at, and as a result, they were ceaselessly persecuted by their neighbors. Their house was pelted with eggs and flour; they were shouted at and screamed at until their lives became a total misery. Mrs. Pilkington eventually snapped under this pressure, took her daughter with her out into the country, set fire to the car and burned them both to death in a hideous murder and suicide of a type which I hope is unimaginable to any of you but which seemed to be a reasonable conclusion to her troubles.
In both cases, they found it almost impossible to get the attention of the authorities, though, of course, after the events became highly public, the authorities began to take some interest and notice. But in fact, this kind of thing is so common at a low level in the grimmer suburbs of English cities that it is actually normal for a lot of people.
This was not the case until quite recently. How has this decline in civilization come about? Well, I think it has come about at least partly — and I’m not a single-cause person — but at least partly because there is no longer in the hearts of the English people the restraint of the Christian religion, which used to prevent this sort of behavior.
I think it would be completely idle to imagine that the two things were unconnected. I haven’t come here to say that civilization’s impossible without religion or indeed without Christianity. There are non-Christian civilizations. There are civilized countries which aren’t really based upon religion at all, such as Japan, which I think any visitor there will agree is an intensely civilized place.
But the extraordinary combination, which you in this country and I in mine used to enjoy and may for some time continue to, of liberty and order seems to me only to occur where people take into their hearts the very, very powerful messages of self-restraint without mutual advantage, which is central to the Christian religion.
Without that, you reach a kind of, what I term, practical atheism, which is not a term which would be used by the people who actually engage in it because they probably could neither spell nor pronounce atheism, but which does seem to me to be a fair summary of the way in which people behave. If we can agree even to begin to agree here that there might be some truth in any of that, then some discussion can take place.
What I’ve found objectionable about a great deal of the attack upon religion that’s been taking place on both sides of the Atlantic in the English-speaking world in the past few years has been the dismissal and the contempt and the scorn and even what seems to me to be the dislike expressed over and over again for the Christian faith and for the good things that religion does and the unwillingness to accept that there are any of those good things, that the turning of the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just is something which could conceivably be obtained together with liberty by some other method.
I don’t think that’s true, and I think in a serious argument about it, then the atheists would need to concede that it wasn’t entirely true, and in conceding that, might be willing to hold the argument on a slightly narrower field from the one where they currently hold it. I’ll leave it at that.
PETER DAVID, THE ECONOMIST: Peter, if I could respond to what you just said. You gave two very telling examples of societies or places where there has been an utter loss of moral compass. One was Mogadishu and the other was your former suburb in Portsmouth. But what struck me is that in the Portsmouth case you seem to argue that it is secular values or at least the loss of religious values that is at least partly to account for what had happened, whereas I would have thought that Somalia was quite a pious country, albeit not a Christian country.
PETER HITCHENS: The point I make about Somalia is, actually, here is a place where civilization was and is not. To go into the history of the foreign interventions in Somalia which largely led to that is a different issue. The only point I was making here was that civilization can cease to exist when forces either from inside or from outside can bring it to an end.
I think almost certainly in the case of a country such as Britain or even possibly the United States the threat is much more likely to be internal. But the questions which really arise here are: What is the source of authority? Why should people behave better than they need to? Why should there ever be a situation in which the strong should be under the control of law? Why should law ever, ever trump power in any system? And why should that restraint exist?
Why should people be brought up to have manners and to show restraint and civility to others? How is it going to happen that they will do so? And if it ceases to happen, how quickly will you reach the stage where it will be wiser to stay inside your house at night than to go out, which is pretty much the state that we were in, in the 13th or 14th century?
What I often get in response from people when I say that things are getting pretty bad in Britain is, well, if you look at the records of Oxford in the 14th century, it was just as bad as it is now. I say, yeah, absolutely. But we have had an interval between now and the 14th century when we thought we were making progress, and now we’re traveling rather rapidly backwards.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Just — only on the Hitchensian stuff, if I may, because otherwise that precious fragment might get lost. Say, of course, that law is being reestablished in parts of Mogadishu. Already, the law is called shari’a; the people enforcing it are called the al-Shabab. They know exactly how much people want government rather than anarchy, and they’ve had a plan for this for a long time. Anarchy is originally part of that plan, by the way. Create the anarchy first, then people will call for your law. That’s how the Taliban took power. This is just another way of rephrasing the problem of the faith-based.
As to my memories of Alverstoke, I have to say I’m shocked to hear that story, even at this remove. Even in those days, we knew we were lucky. Our parents would not have said you can go into Portsmouth and hang around the railway station or the docks any old time of day or night. No, in fact, we were constantly being enjoined to beware of the rough and the lumpen element that was noticeable in English life.
Then there were cities where you couldn’t even imagine, where everyone — your school friends — would talk about, do you know what happens in Glasgow on the housing estates? This is in exactly the ’50s and ’60s when the authority of the Church of England was much greater than it is now. Glasgow, you’d get your eyes cut out with a broken bottle if — inaudible —particular students looked at you. It was partly true. Glasgow, the most religious city in the country, where people would kill you over what kind of Christian you were, as a matter of fact.
We hadn’t then realized how bad the situation was in Northern Ireland, where constant violence, incivility, sadism, combined with all the things that go with clerical rule and politics — backwardness, stupidity, unemployment, low standards of education and hygiene. The place was a complete slum. And what distinguished it from the rest of the United Kingdom? The fact that the priests had authority there and people were willing to swing a boot or a bottle in the name of faith. That’s what made the difference.
PETER HITCHENS: May I make a brief riposte? Part of the problem that we had with the rough parts of town was — I’m afraid that our mother, particularly, was a bit of a snob. I do remember one occasion. We had the groceries delivered and in the box which had come from the grocers was a jar of peanut butter, which I seized on and began to eat before — my mother was out when the delivery came. When she came back, she said, what’s this? Peanut butter? We don’t have that in this house! And she rang the grocers and demanded they come and take it back and forbade me to eat any more because it was not the kind of thing that the children of a naval officer ought to eat.
When we lived in an even more salubrious part of the country, on the edge of Dartmoor, there was a small estate of prefabs inhabited by people who were known as the rough boys, with whom we were not allowed to associate. I don’t think the danger from them was actually very great. The main danger was we might have picked up their accents.
I do think that the other thing Christopher does tend to do is to surge off into the wider and more political side of this matter. Yes, of course, the Northern Irish problem and indeed in Glasgow a similar problem of Protestant and Catholic sectarianism is, was and, I fear, for many years will be great. But in terms of the lives which people led, the way in which they behaved towards their neighbors, the way in which children were brought up, the manners which people displayed, I don’t think you will find that the effect of Christian upbringing was small in the 1950s or 1960s.
What’s happened to Northern Ireland and indeed to Scotland and indeed the whole of Britain in that period is the invasion of trash culture and the collapse of all that kind of teaching. And there’s an enormous amount of protection racket, gangster-ish thuggery there carried on in the name of religious factionalism, but not, I think, generally by people who are enthusiastic churchgoers or ever were.
There is this problem with the utopian view of the world, which I don’t share, that you do like to concentrate on the big things. Can we bring democracy or civilization to X? Can we defeat such and such all around the world rather than can we actually construct, in the square mile around where we live, a civil society in which people can live in freedom and order? Which seems to me to be, actually, just as important if not more so and often rather harder in execution than launching missiles or sending armies to the other side of the world with dubious consequences.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: I’m going to turn this to the personal, if I might. I was listening to a BBC — a Radio 4 — interview with both of you back from 2007, and it appeared to be fairly acrimonious between the two of you. Do you remember that one?
PETER HITCHENS: If it’s the one I’m thinking of, it was very brief.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, not by NPR standards.
PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, but with the BBC, unlike your own wonderful organization, if you’re me and you’re interviewed by it, you know you’ve got 15 seconds before they interrupt you. So you’ve got to be quick.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: What was interesting about listening to this kind of three-way, as we would call it at NPR, is that it was really fairly acrimonious. I didn’t hear a lot of brotherly love in that. It was hard to detect that. I’m just wondering if there has been a change in the way you all view each other, view your arguments about, say, the existence of God or life after death, that kind of thing, the necessity of religion to have a moral civilization. Has any of that tenor changed since, Christopher, you have been diagnosed?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I don’t think my own tenor has changed. The relationship I have with Peter is very well encapsulated in the fragment of his book that Michael read at the beginning. I mean, if you want to know, if anything, my contempt for the forced consolation of religion has increased since I became aware that I probably don’t have very long to live. But it’s not a thing I want to make a particular point on in this argument.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: If I could just follow up with one thing. There’s been a fairly public discussion of the fact that you have sometimes been offended but sometimes warmed by the fact that people are praying for you or thinking of you. I’d like to ask you to elaborate on that last statement about your contempt because in my reading of what you’ve said recently, it seemed as if perhaps you were cheered a little bit or warmed by some expressions of belief.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, you have the floor and you’re insisting, so in spite of my reluctance — obviously, expressions of solidarity are very welcome and very touching to me in whatever form they take. I do resent, always have resented, the idea that it should in some way be assumed that now that you may be terrified, say, or miserable or, as it might be, depressed, surely now would be a perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.
I’ve always thought this to be rather a repulsive mode of approach, and there’s a disgusting history of people either attempting to inflict deathbed conversions on people like Thomas Paine in their extremity or making up lies about it afterwards, as they did about Charles Darwin and many others. That I find wholly contemptible.
But it’s only vestigially applied in my case; surely, I ought to think more about these things now than I would anyway. No, not at all. I’ve already thought about them a great deal. Thanks all the same. An interesting point I’ll make — well, you be the judge of whether it’s interesting or not. (Laughter.)
A point of it is this: I read a long time ago, when I was still, as far as I knew, in good health, a study of intercessory prayer, the most comprehensive one that’s ever been done. And it showed, not at all to my surprise, that there’s no correlation to be found between intercessory prayer and the thriving or otherwise of those for whom the prayers are designed or offered.
Except it was found that among some people who knew they were being prayed for by groups of colleagues and friends, there was a slight negative result in point of morale. If they didn’t get better, they felt bad about not getting better after all the trouble that had been taken. I thought, that’s interesting. And now, I realize how true it might be because I get a lot of secular encouragement.
People say, cancer picked the wrong foe in you. You can beat this if anyone can. Lots of that kind of thing, and it actually does have the effect of slightly giving me the blues because I don’t want to let people down. For whatever interest that may be, I think it shows that the psychological makeup of this is roughly the same whether you assume a supernatural dimension or not.
PETER HITCHENS: Speaking for the religious side of the argument, I also think it would be quite grotesque to imagine that someone would have to get cancer to see the merits of religion. It’s an absurd idea. I don’t know why anyone imagines that it should be so.
CROMARTIE: But Barbara, you had something more, I think, in your question about their relationship. And so Peter, can you address any of that.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I thought we’d done that.
CROMARTIE: Well, Christopher did. I didn’t know if Peter wanted to comment.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I was quoting Peter.
CROMARTIE: I was quoting him, actually. (Laughter.) Yeah, I actually quoted you — I did it for you.
PETER HITCHENS: Look, one of the things that I remember discovering with the most happiness in my life, round about the age of 11 or 12, was that it was possible to disagree without anger or rancor. And in fact, it’s actually more pleasant to do so. I’ve always thought that, and I really don’t see the point in spoiling a good argument by getting angry with your opponent. And he has been my opponent for most of my life. I certainly have in the past been angry with him, but I would say that that is over.
MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Let me ask a little more philosophical question. I’d really like to hear both brothers respond to what might be called the challenge of Friedrich Nietzsche, which assumes a large place in Christian apologetics, which is the idea that in the absence of transcendence, all you’re left with is a ferocious human will. So I just would love to hear the perspective of whether he was a crank or a prophet in these areas from both brothers.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I can rephrase the question in addressing it.
GERSON: Yeah, please do.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Nietzsche famously said that in the absence of the divine, all that there is, is the human will to power. That would be all you were left with. That’s why Nietzscheism is so often used as almost a substitute among some people I know for the work of Ayn Rand, for example. And implied in that is also that that can be admirable. I must just tell you that I was once asked by an evangelical radio station a lot of very, very polite questions about my book against God. Then at the end, they said, was I an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche? I said, actually, I wasn’t really much of one at all.
They were clearly disappointed with this, but they went on and said, well, did I know that he’d written most of his antireligious books in a state of — inaudible — syphilitic paralysis? And I said, yes, I was aware of that, or certainly had heard it plausibly alleged. They said they just wondered if that would explain my own — (laughter) — more recent — I thought, well, no, but thanks for the compassion.
Look, it might be that all of these questions are replacement questions. Is it not equally true to say that the religious impulse is an expression of the will to power? Who could deny it? Someone who says, I not only know how you should live, but I have a divine warrant here revealed to me, in some cases exclusively, that gives me permission to do so. What is that but the will to power, may I inquire? I think it’s a very, very strong instance of it.
If I don’t get asked the Nietzsche question, which I quite often do, if it isn’t that, it’s usually The Brothers Karamazov instead. I forget which brother it is, or maybe it’s Smerdyakov. It doesn’t matter. It says, if there’s no God, then surely everything is possible — thinkable.
Everyone understands the question when it’s put like that. But is it not also the case that with God, or with the belief in it, permission can be given by anyone to do anything to anybody and has been and still is? Unfortunately, these questions are not decidable according to your attitude toward the supernatural. These are problems of human society and the human psyche — you might say, soul — whatever attitude we take to the humanness or the transcendent.
PETER HITCHENS: First of all, just a small objection to that. It seems to me that the Christian Gospels are read any way you like, and especially the final few days are one of the most powerful denunciations of the exercise of power, of the behavior of mobs, of show trials, all the many activities of which governments and politicians get up to.
There is even in the jibe against Judas — “the poor ye have always with you” — the first skeptical remark about socialist idealism ever made in human history. So I think that you would be hard put to claim that the Christian Gospels gave you a license to order people about. And it seems odd that the center of Christian worship is someone who is indeed tortured to death by the powerful.
But leaving that one aside, I think atheists should pay more attention to Nietzsche because I think that he does actually encapsulate quite a lot of what they very, very seldom say they desire. Now, in my book I quote at length from a passage in Somerset Maugham’s book, Of Human Bondage, in which the hero decides — and this is an Edwardian person brought up in detail in the Christian faith in an English vicarage — decides that he no longer believes in God and says quite clearly, “This is a moment of enormous liberation. I no longer need to worry about things which worried me before, and I am no longer tied by obligations which used to tie me down. I’m free.”
What else is the point of being an atheist? But yet, when you actually put this to atheists, they tend to say, oh no, no, not me. I’m just as capable of following moral rules as you are, even if they are Christian moral rules. This constantly comes up and immediately swirls down the circle of the atheists’ refusal to accept that there is actually no absolute right and wrong if there is no God and that therefore, they are liberated.
Why aren’t they more pleased they’re liberated and why don’t they exult more about it? Perhaps because they don’t want to spread the idea too widely and have too many people joining in.
DAVID AIKMAN, THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR: This is a question primarily for Christopher. I think everybody around the table would agree that the presence of Taliban-type regimes or shari’a-oriented regimes in places like Mogadishu are absolutely horrible examples of what could go wrong when people of certain kind of beliefs take power. And I don’t exclude the history of Christendom from having moments like that. Nevertheless, I want to ask, can you think of any historical period — any civilization — in which a regime that has basically eschewed the divine in all its forms has fostered a degree of civilization among human beings? And Peter, of course, you can answer that, too.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Eschew would mean to forbear from practicing or praising the teaching of religion. That’s not the sort of thing a regime can actually do. What regimes usually do typically is either coexist with religion — try to co-opt it — or, in some very extreme cases, try to do away with and/or nationalize it, as in the case of the French and Russian Revolutions, for example. You make it part of the state while repudiating much of its doctrine. We haven’t been able to run a fair test yet, it seems to me.
I mean, if there was to be a society that taught the principles of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, Baruch Spinoza — Benedict Spinoza, as he later was — Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell — taught the children to learn and understand those teachings and ethics and the other things that go with them, I don’t think it would be a bad thing.
I think the United States comes the closest to any society that we know about that decides that religious pluralism — because civilization is impossible without freedom of conscience, and therefore, it goes without saying that there has to be freedom of worship, that that’s best guaranteed by a state that takes no notice of — eschews, as you might put it, any role at all in determining religious matters.
AIKMAN: But if I may respond to that, Christopher, I think, again, it doesn’t take much looking at the founders of the United States to see that the vast majority of them believed in the practice of Christian ethics and indeed were actually believers in some sort of divinity, even if they weren’t orthodox Christians. Certainly, they were either deists or some form of Christian churchgoers. And yet, it’s clear, if you look at them, that very few of them seemed to believe that it was possible to hold together a society unless people were inspired by ethical traditions, basically, under the guise of believing in divine right and wrong.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I just disagree with you. It’s certainly not true of the two who matter most to me, or matter most to this argument, namely Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison, who together offered the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which is almost exactly, really, the basis of the First Amendment to our Constitution, which is the relevant one.
Jefferson most certainly was not a Christian. He seemed to me to have had great dislike for it. I can’t prove he was an atheist, though I could point you to letters that he wrote that strongly suggest to me that he privately was one. It doesn’t matter. It’s interesting, but it’s not decisive.
James Madison, though he didn’t dare say so in his lifetime, didn’t think there should be chaplains in the armed forces. He didn’t think that Congress’ proceedings should even be opened by a man of God. He was an absolutist on the separation point. And therefore, in some sense, it wouldn’t matter even if he was a devout believer. The point would be the same. The separation is the important thing. And surely, I appeal to those of you who do regard yourselves as believers, it’s just as important to prevent the church being tainted by the state as the state being run by the church.
The pope is still fornicating with the emperor, as Dante puts it. Bad for both, one imagines.
PETER HITCHENS: The thing which strikes me about societies which are preferable and the societies which I wouldn’t want to stay in for any longer than I absolutely have to is that the ones which are preferable do have the rule of law. This seems to me to be the distinction between a tolerable free society and one which is not, which is the most decisive.
And I’m fascinated by the origin of the idea of the rule of law, that you could have a circumstance in which a person with physical power, with enormous wealth, was compelled by forces which he could not challenge to abide by the law, which is a thing without substance and which, in theory, he could overcome.
I think the origin of that has to be and must be the idea of an unalterable truth at the heart of the law. English judges and English laws are always seeking in the common law — I think the same tradition exists here — to discover what the law is, and what they’re trying to discover seems to me to be based on an assumption that there is an ultimate truth about what the law should be about.
Without that, in the end, you have nothing except the variable needs of human power. It does seem to me, again, to be idle of the atheist cause to turn their backs so completely on their friends in the Russian Social Democratic Party, brackets, B for Bolshevik, which was so very much their ally to the extent that one of its earliest decrees, the Lenin-Trotsky Decree, was for the prevention of the teaching of religion in schools, and indeed outside schools. It even decreed that the word “God,” which is “Бог” in Russian, should no longer be spelled with a capital letter. It was devoted to the extirpation of religion.
In my book, which I do commend to you because you probably haven’t read it, there is probably the most thorough, concise description of the stamping out of religion by the Soviet authorities that exists in English. It took me quite a long time to compile, and I wouldn’t want it to be wasted. It completely devastates the idea that the Soviet Union was itself some kind of religious society. There were indeed toadies, remnants of the Orthodox Church and indeed among the Jews, who went to the Soviet authorities and offered their assistance. They ended up — all of them — in prison and eventually murdered. Their assistance was not welcome because the whole basis of this regime was an absolute rejection of the idea there was anything beyond the material.
This is the thing which, in the days before the Soviet Union became unfashionable, in the days when it was admired, as Cuba is still madly admired by many people in the Western left, and as China was admired for a long time in the 1950s and 1960s, in the time when it was admired by the very people who always admire that sort of thing, whether it be the Sandinistas or whoever it happens to be, at that stage, that was one of the things they admired most about it. It’s still the same; utopians always hate God.
CROMARTIE: Christopher, you had a very nice comment to say about that section of Peter’s book, and I think the publisher would like to hear that quote for a future blurb advertisement. What did you just say?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It’s a very fine and muscular piece of prose, and it taught me — I thought I knew a lot about the anticlerical campaigns of the Bolshevik Party, but there’s a great deal in there that I’d never read before and that I commend to you. It would be cheap to add, but I can’t not do it.
PETER HITCHENS: Oh, go on.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Every country that wants to emancipate itself, develop in any way at all, eventually has to come into a confrontation with the alliance of church and state and break it. There’s usually some correlation with how bad and rotten that alliance is and how oppressive and how bad the rupture is.
In America, the rupture was almost painless. It just involved disestablishing the Church of England and forbidding by law the reestablishment of another church. Hardly anyone had to suffer much more than confiscation or deportation for that.
In France, where the church was part of the whole criminal racket of feudalism and monarchy, of course, it was much more cruel and violent. In Spain, during the civil war, especially in Catalonia, people felt strongly enough actually to burn the churches. It’s one of the great confrontations between my two favorite writers of the 1930s, W.H. Auden and George Orwell.
Orwell, to my surprise, didn’t much mind the churches being burned. He thought they deserved it. Auden said, I couldn’t live in a country where there were no churches. I just couldn’t. And I realized, if it’s of any interest, I would be the same. I couldn’t do it, myself.
But the Russian Orthodox Church, comrades, brothers, sisters, don’t forget — this is the church of serfdom and slavery and autocracy. It’s the church that brought us the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. If the clerical and white side had won the civil war in Russia, our word for fascism would be a Russian word, not an Italian word.
The power of that church and its wealth had to be broken and confiscated. I don’t quarrel with that. And I don’t think religion should be taught in school, and I don’t care whether people have enough confidence in God or not to see his name without a capital letter, as I think you can do in Hebrew.
PETER HITCHENS: But to have that decreed by the state?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Decreed by the state is another way of saying it’s the law, as it is in the United States. You cannot teach religion in schools.
PETER HITCHENS: To have it decreed by the state that the word God could not be used with a capital letter?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No. That’s a bit Russian. (Laughter.)
PETER HITCHENS: When you say that you don’t think religion should be taught in schools, do you think religion should be not taught in schools, which is more to the point? Do you think it should be prevented by law from being taught in schools, as these people most certainly did, and indeed taught in the home?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I think the home is exactly the right place for it, as long as it doesn’t come accompanied with things like genital mutilation or being told that your neighbors of another faction are going to go to hell, or other antisocial things of that kind. Savage beatings and torturings and so on — or plural marriage or the selling of children in dowry to goat-like old uncles in Utah. The home, yes, but no further than that. I don’t want to have to know what your religion is. I enjoy the study of religion. I’ve taken it up because I want to. I don’t want to have to know what anyone else thinks. Keep it to yourself.
Shouldn’t it make you happy? You have a redeemer. You have someone who offers you perfect bliss and happiness if you make the right prostrations and the right — (inaudible) —. Why isn’t that enough for you? Why do I have to know what it is? Why do you have to try and spread it? I don’t want to have to know.
MICHAEL BARONE, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER:I will refrain from describing my own religious views, if any. I just want to add to what Barbara asked Christopher about intercessory prayer and so forth. Christopher, I just think what we’re seeing is just an enormous surge of affection for you from your fellow citizens of all kinds of different beliefs and things that are grateful to have you as a fellow citizen and wish you well.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, thank you so much, Michael.
BARONE: It’s quite extraordinary. In your opening remarks, you sort of sketched a world, the post-1914 world, in which there is a secular and a nonbelieving Europe and a Muslim world where there is much oppression in the name of religion. But haven’t we also seen, looking over other large parts of the world, places where, in effect, we’ve broken the alliance of church and state in generally positive respects — North America, Latin America, even India.
They still burn mosques occasionally and slaughter people, but not very much by their historic standards. We’re talking about half the population of the world, something like that, where we really have societies where you have people of these different, often strong faiths, sometimes naïve and ignorant of fine points of dogma, as you make clear, but also managing to live pretty peaceably with one another.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Just to take the Muslim world for example, I would say it’s almost a graph. You could do it practically as a function: How secular is this Muslim country and how prosperous, how open, how democratic is it, and how happy are its people?
It’s like a function. Indonesia, yes. Partly, I think, because Indonesia was more converted than conquered by Islam. Some of it was conquered; mainly it was spread by conversion. But Turkey, because Ataturk, in my opinion, was an atheist. He didn’t have to be to be a secularist, but it helped.
I believe he was one. He really was prepared to shoot and hang mullahs if they got in his way of modernizing the country. And he managed to do for Turkey in a few years what it might have taken centuries to do. We’re now worried it might be undone or be in the process of being undone, but Turkey’s an exemplary country, given that its majority population believe what they say they do in private.
Tunisia would be another example of one, the least religiously dominated — the religious party’s under very careful control, not to say oppression. A society nearly as qualified as Turkey to join the European Union. It works pretty much all the time.
Jimmy Carter, in his book on the Camp David process, says that the reason Israel is in trouble is because it strayed from the path of the prophets. So you have to imagine that there are people who think that if only Israel was more religious, the Camp David process would be more —
I only say that because sometimes I read things I can’t imagine why people believe them. Surely the only chance for a settlement in the region is the triumph of secularism. And though countries like Holland may be unexciting in certain ways, the prosperity and happiness of the Dutch surely has a great deal to do with the fact that it’s been a refuge from Christian religious intolerance since the 17th century. The work of Spinoza and Descartes wouldn’t be possible without that kind of secularism.
So I rest what I think is a fairly persuasive case.
SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: This seems to be my month for atheists. I spent a lot of time interviewing Christopher earlier, and then a week before last, Richard Dawkins and today, Sam Harris. Sam has just written a book called The Moral Landscape, and I’m fascinated by the issue of morality because there is this notion that you can’t be a moral person unless you are a religious person —
PETER HITCHENS: No, there isn’t. You keep saying that; that’s not the point. Where do you derive your morals from?
QUINN: No, I didn’t say you —
PETER HITCHENS: It’s not — of course you can be a moral person, but where are the morals from that you’ve actually recognized as morals?
QUINN: Where are the morals from? Well, actually, I didn’t say that you said that. I said, there seems to be this notion. Both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — and Sam is a neuroscientist, so he’s talking about the science of the brain — talk about how they feel that morality is evolving and that we are becoming more moral as humans as we evolve. Originally, when Confucius first came up with the notion of the Golden Rule, it was seen more as an idea of practicality or pragmatism, that society was not functioning and you needed some idea that would bring people together in a community in order to keep them safe and in order to have a functional society.
As religion has taken over that role, morality has become sort of the province of religion. And now that religion seems to be questioned often these days, people are looking at morality from a different point of view and saying that religion really is not as important in terms of basing your moral positions and your values and your ethics on. But the idea is simply evolving into an idea that morality is there because it’s part of the human brain — we’re hardwired to be moral — and that we are becoming more so every day.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I owe a reply to what Peter said earlier about law, which could serve for this as well. I don’t know about every day, by the way, Sally, that we’re getting better and better. I’m not sure. I think there are peaks and troughs. I think we’re doomed to fluctuation in this regard.
But I think that we’re probably doomed to some kind of relativism, or perhaps better to say approximation. Who is going to tell me, here is a law that is absolutely true and will hold good for all time and has been proclaimed scripturally? We might say, thou shalt not kill. It would be probably inevitable we would have to start with that. But it doesn’t say, thou shalt not kill. It says, thou shall do no murder, and everybody knows that there is a real difficulty in deciding when killing is murder and that the situational ethics of this are very complicated but are common to all times and places.
Different standards prevail at different times, but that argument is an open-ended one and will remain so. I’m rather glad, as a matter of fact, from the point of both moral and intellectual and ethical exercise, that you can’t just tell someone one thing, that that’s right and that’s true for all time, and there’s nothing to argue about. That’s why I object to the idea of commandments in the first place. Morality is not learned by orders. It’s acquired by experience, by moral suasion, and by comparing and contrasting different ways of resolving these questions.
There are thought crimes in the Ten Commandments. You are told you shouldn’t even envy someone else’s prosperity or property. Well, from a Socialist point of view, that says you’ve got to just lump it if people are better off than you, and from a capitalist and free-enterprise point of view, it says, it’s basically a crime to emulate — this whole spur of emulation and innovation is possibly a sin.
And anyway, it’s in the same list as murder as a crime — something you’re thinking. I don’t think that’s an absolute moral truth at all. To the contrary, I think we’d be better off without it. So where do we get it? It’s perfectly obvious that we happen to be, as other primates are, capable of and needing to make decisions about our common welfare, as well as about our own ambition. We happen to be stuck with that.
PETER HITCHENS: The question of conscience, or what Sally referred to as the hardwiring of the brain, seems to me to be one of the most fascinating, unexplored subjects in this matter, and it seems to me to be very, very hard to come up with an atheistic explanation of conscience, any more than you could have a compass without a magnetic north.
If morality evolves, then morality changes. Then the things of which we most strongly disapprove now could be things which are permitted later, in which case it’s not really morality, as far as I’m concerned. And who’s evolving it? I love that advertisement — maybe it didn’t happen here — Microsoft Office has evolved, by which they meant, we’ve gone back and tried to make it a bit better than it was and a bit more like what Apple does.
That doesn’t seem to me to be evolution as generally understood, but the word does seem to have a remarkable number of meanings. But if it evolves, then it alters, and if it alters, it’s not morality, and therefore, we can’t rely upon it. If the magnetic north kept shifting, then it would be very difficult to steer your boat or your plane across the Atlantic.
QUINN: Well then, do you need religion to be moral?
PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, absolutely. Morality is what you do when you think nobody is looking. And there’s a lot of things I would do if I didn’t believe in God.
CROMARTIE: I think both of our authors have spoken to this in their books, and so I would call your attention to their books.
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, THE GUARDIAN: I actually wanted to follow up exactly where you left off. I think the question on the exam paper has been answered by Hitchens, P. entirely satisfactorily: Can civilization survive without God? Answer: clearly yes. You mentioned Japan; one could also say China. If the question is, can civilization survive without an ethical or moral order, the answer is, clearly no — almost definitionally. So the question is, can you have a strong, durable ethical or moral order without some transcendent or supernatural basis? That seems to me the question we’re posing here.
Interestingly, Tony Judt, shortly before he died, in the Charlie Rose interview was asked this question. He was an absolute nonbeliever, and he said, I find people, when they say they believe something, when they have a stand of principle, quite like an absolute or transcendent justification of it. It makes it easier for them to stand strongly for it.
I think the question to Christopher here is, you mentioned that we’re doomed to some sort of a relativism. You’re getting very close to someone you often criticized, Isaiah Berlin, who famously said at the end of his four essays on liberty, the challenge we face is to recognize the relativity of our beliefs and yet to stand for them absolutely.
That’s quite a difficult thing to do. How do we do that, and do you think we really can get that without what we’re going on with at the moment in Western Europe or in England, which is actually a sort of secularized Christianity, or secularized post-Christianity? I mean, your heroes, the Jeffersons, the Madisons, the Tom Paines, the Orwells. It was a sort of secularized post-Christianity.
CROMARTIE: Why don’t we gather up these final questions, and then we’ll let you all answer all of them, so take notes.
PETER WEHNER, COMMENTARY MAGAZINE: I’d like to return to the metaphor of tennis and ask Christopher and Peter to return their own serves, in a sense. To you, Christopher, what do you think is the greatest contribution of Christianity, either writ large in terms of society or writ small in terms of individual lives? And for you, Peter, what do you find is the most compelling argument that the atheists make and the strongest argument against Christianity, the ones that trouble you the most, whether science or the existence of evil?
TIMOTHY DALRYMPLE, PATHEOS.COM: This is related to what Pete just asked. It strikes me that as individuals become champions for particular philosophies, it becomes difficult to project anything that might conflict with the public persona or might conflict with an image of immaculate certainty in your own point of view. I know that heroes of faith can find it difficult to confess doubts, and I’m wondering if the same follows for heroes of nonfaith. So the question is, are there moments in which — this is for both brothers — moments in which you doubt the philosophies you have come to represent in the public mind, and if so, what brings those moments about?
SUSAN GLASSER, FOREIGN POLICY: I was interested in your discussion about Russia and the campaign to stamp out Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union, especially because of the famous moment at which Stalin backed away from his crusade against religion, which was, of course, in World War II when the threat from Germany was proving to be existential. Immediately, Stalin, in the defense of Moscow, put the Orthodox priests, such as remained, front and center once again in the effort to reorient Soviet rhetoric away from ideology and return it to nationalism.
So my question to you is, how does that cause you to look, perhaps in a different way, at your question between the connection to ideology and nationalism? This is not about personal morality as much, this question, but to both of you, I would be curious as to your answers as to where you see the connection between religion and nationalism to be.
CROMARTIE: OK, we have four questions on the table — more than four, but Christopher, will you go first?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I used to ask a question. I’ve now asked it in public, on the radio, in print, in TV debates with quite a lot of leading religious figures and thinkers. It’s simply this: You ought to be able to tell me of a moral action performed or an ethical statement made by a believer that I couldn’t make because I’m a nonbeliever. You ought to be able. Given what you think, it must be very easy for you to say, here’s something you couldn’t say or do that would be morally right or morally true. No takers; I haven’t found a single example. I’ve tried everyone now — and by the way, there’s a prize. And I’ve even entered myself for it, as I’ll tell you in a second.
But if I was to say to someone, now can you name me please a hideous immoral act undertaken or an immoral remark made by someone because of their faith — not in its name, but because of it — you’ve already thought of one. Now you’ve thought of another one, and you’ll keep on thinking of them. So I think that pretty much disposes of the question, with its implied insult, that without faith one would have no ground for, say, acting rightly when no one else was looking or answering the promptings of conscience.
Here is my attempt to win my own prize. When Lech Wałęsa was starting his work in the Polish shipyards and the Polish militia, the outer ring of the Polish army were closing in on Gdansk, he was interviewed with his then-fairly small group, and he was asked, aren’t you frightened, aren’t you afraid? You’ve taken on a whole all-powerful state and army — aren’t you scared? And he said, I’m not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God.
This came back to me. I thought, well, this meets my two criteria. It’s certainly a noble thing to have said, a distinguished thing to have said, and I certainly couldn’t have said it. So it does meet both my criteria. But it was also the slogan of Gen. Edwin Walker of the John Birch Society in a different situation — the man whom Lee Harvey Oswald took target practice on, right-wing, paranoid Crusade for Christ nutbag in the ’50s. Doesn’t sound so good when it’s said by him and it’s a summons to think of nuclear war as not too bad, for example. It’s not quite the same.
So there, I’ve partly answered the question. I hope I partly asked one. Christianity’s greatest contribution. I haven’t been asked that in those terms before, but I find it strangely easy to say what it would be from the prayers I used to intone and the hymns and psalms I used to sing and the lessons I used to read and hear. The greatest contribution of Christianity in my life is the reminder of the complete ephemerality of human power, and indeed of human existence — the transience of all states, empires, heroes, grandiose claims, and so forth. That’s always with me, and I daresay I could have got that from Einstein — I would have — and from Darwin, too. But the way I got it and the way it’s implanted in me is certainly by Christianity.
In what moments do I think, what if I’m wrong? I always think it’s probably a weakness in me because I always like to think that in any argument I can return my own serve. If I was appointed to speak on the other side of a debate, I could do it. I could make the case, say, for leaving Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and you wouldn’t know that I didn’t believe it. But I couldn’t do it for religion. I am one of those people whom Pascal has in mind in his Pensées, which he addresses, if you remember, to those who are so made that they cannot believe. Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin. Nothing could persuade me that that was true — or moral, by the way. Just — I can’t — it’s — (audio break) — predisposition to faith.
And then finally, yes, of course. One of the great disfigurements of Christianity, and not just in Russia, has been where I began, with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s account of the self-destruction, self-immolation, of Christendom, its identification with Rome or Byzantium. Remember, the Crusaders first destroyed Byzantine Christianity, having more or less polished off the Jews on their way over to Constantinople before they even started murdering any Muslims.
The identification of it with kingship, with throne and alter, the absolute negation of what it teachers about the ephemerality of power. Its enslavement, in fact, to secular power is a very noticeable thing about it, and it’s very — Eastern Orthodoxy used to be Eastern Orthodoxy. Now there’s a Macedonian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Orthodox, Russian — all of them uniquely fitted to the needs of local sectarian requirements.
If anything could prove what I so much believe, which is that we are not made by God and never were and could not have been, but that many, many gods have been made by men and women and it is precisely the other way around, the basic claim of materialism — if nothing else could persuade me of that obvious truth, the behavior of religion itself would be enough.
PETER HITCHENS: First of all, in response to Tim Garton Ash. I made this concession quite deliberately about civilizations being able to exist without God. But examine Chinese civilization, a shameless police state. And examine Japanese civilization, a tremendously conformist and actually very unfree society, and compare that — W.H. Auden used to say when the Church of England destroyed the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, why spit on your luck? And I say the same to the beneficiaries of Protestant Christianity in the Anglosphere.
This tremendous civilization in which we live, which has been bequeathed to us and which in my country we’re determined not to bequeath to our own children, is the most extraordinary piece of good fortune, if nothing else. And it does seem to me derived — as I say, this combination of order and liberty almost unique in human history and unique on the face of the planet — does arise, actually, from Protestant Christianity. And it does not exist in Japan, and it never would exist in China because that force of thought does not exist there. So yes, you can have civilization, but be careful what sort of civilization it is.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Better than when their emperor was a god.
PETER HITCHENS: I’ve no doubt. But that’s not the kind of God that I worship, and I think we should be clear very much here when we discuss this that in defending Christianity one is not necessarily defending the Koran, Hinduism or many other available faiths with which I would frankly say that I disagree, and I could give you reasons for doing so.
When are my greatest moments of doubt? Often when I’m reading the Old Testament or indeed the Epistles of St. Paul. I do find them rather provoking towards feelings of, oh, no, do I really have to put up with this? But then, as you will see, I’m not terribly orthodox in my belief. I doubt all the time — endless, incessant doubt. I think that both the atheist and the Christian fear that there is a God, but the Christian also hopes that there is one.
And it was Edmund Burke, I think, who said first of all that the man who truly fears God will fear nothing else. The difficulty in the saying is the truly and getting yourself to actually believe strongly enough in the idea that you are able to put off your fear of the Polish United Workers’ Party, the secret police and the Red Army and all the rest of it, or whatever else happens to be coming down the road towards you that you’re supposed to resist and you would much rather run away from, which we all, I think — well, I certainly would. The experience is when I’ve had the chance to run away from something, I’ve always taken it.
On the question of Stalin, yes, it is absolutely true that at that moment, when the mummy of Lenin had been dispatched, I think, to Kuybyshev and the Soviet government somewhere else, and the whole thing was in headlong, total retreat and Stalin’s pact with Hitler, which Stalin had believed in long after Hitler had ceased to do so, had been shown to be wrong, but to such an extent that Stalin would not actually order his own troops into the defense of the motherland because he believed the pact was still in existence for some days.
In the case of that, yes, he did call on the church. He also called on Russian patriotism, and statues of Mikhail Kutuzov began to appear in the streets. All this was dragged out because it was a matter of total desperation. What people should observe is that as soon as the danger was over, the persecution was redoubled, and particularly under Nikita Khrushchev. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a very severe persecution of Christianity in the Soviet Union. It was purely opportunist, and it was the only moment at which they made that gesture at all.
So I don’t think it undermined — one small point I do want to come back to, by the way — Christopher was praising Kemal Ataturk for his treatment of the mullahs. And I often wonder how he views Stalin’s exactly parallel treatment of the same people in Soviet Central Asia at the same time, almost identical — ceremonies in which veils were burned in the public square, mullahs were indeed shot. Now, because that was done by Stalin —
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Only language they understood.
PETER HITCHENS: — was that bad, or was it OK?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Fine.
PETER HITCHENS: Right, OK. I’d like to have that settled. You’re never asked anything like enough about your attitude towards the Soviet Revolution, but —
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Fine, I’m long overdue. People will be nostalgic for it before long.
PETER HITCHENS: I’ll bear that in mind.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yeah, they will. Wait and see
PETER HITCHENS: I won’t. Was there anything else? I know it hasn’t been done for this reason, but it happened in Britain when Mr. Blair became prime minister that no one was ever able to ask him a question again, it was always three questions at once, and when he answered them, he always ignored the difficult one. So is there anything I haven’t answered that anyone feels — (inaudible, cross talk).
CROMARTIE: No, I wanted to say to the audience that Peter Hitchens came all the way from Oxford just to do this lunch, and Christopher came to us in between doctor’s appointments, which we’re extremely grateful for. We were afraid that this might not happen in light of the fact that we had one person in Oxford and the other person going through treatments, and so I think you should join me in thanking both of these brothers for joining us for this very special lunch. (Applause.)
This written transcript has been edited by Amy Stern for clarity, grammar and accuracy.