Christopher Hitchens (2007) at Georgetown


Well, thank you Georgetown, thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming. Thank you, Michael, for that suspiciously terse introduction, which of all the introductions I've heard to myself, is certainly the most recent. Thank you, seriously, to the Ethics and Public Policy Center and for your work, for conceiving this idea, for encouraging me to do it, for bringing us (Dr. McGrath) all the way from our common alma mater of Oxford and for the regular seminars that you may not know that Michael does all the time on these matters of faith versus reason which is, after all, the ground on which we are met this evening. I always come before events like this with antagonists like Dr. McGrath with a slight sense, a very slight sense—I hope it doesn't sound self-pitying—of inequality. My views are, if I say it for myself, tolerably well advertised and if they're not, it's partly your fault because what I say is fairly intelligible, very plainly stated, if—you know what I think if you care to find out. When I debate with Jews and Muslims and Christians, I very often find, I say, "Well, do you really believe there was a virgin birth?" "Do you really believe in a Genesis creation?" "Do you really believe in bodily resurrection?" and I get a sort of Monty Python reply: "Well, there's a little bit of metaphorical, really." I'm not sure, and I’m going to find out—I’m determined to find out this evening which line on this my antagonist does take and I want you to notice and I want you to test him on it because I think it's fair and I'm going to talk to him and to you as if he did represent the Christian faith. I can't do all three monotheisms tonight. I may get a whack at the other two in the course of the discussion, I can only really do his and I'm going to assume that it means something to him and that it's not just a humanist metaphysics and I think I'm entitled to that assumption. The main thing I want to dispute this evening—because I'm either drowning in time with twenty minutes, it's either too much or too little—is this: you hear it very often said by people of a vague faith that, well it may not be the case that religion is metaphysically true; its figures and its stories may be legendary or dwell on the edge of myth, prehistoric, its truth claims may be laughable; we have better claims—excuse me, better explanations for the origins and birth of our cosmos and our species now, so much better so, in fact, that had they been available to begin with, religion would never have taken root. No one would now go back to the stage when we didn't have any real philosophy, we only had mythology, when we thought we lived on a flat planet or when we thought that our planet was circulated by the sun instead of the other way around, when we didn't know that there were micro-organisms as part of creation and that they were more powerful than us and had dominion over us rather than we, them, when we were fearful of the infancy of our species. We, we wouldn't have taken up theism if we'd known now what we did then, but allow for all that, allow for all that, you still have to credit religion with being the source of ethics and morals. Where would we get these from if it weren't from faith? I think, in the time I've got, I think that's the position I most want to undermine. I don't believe that it's true that religion is moral or ethical. I certainly don't believe of course that any of its explanations about the origin of our species or the Cosmos or its ultimate destiny are true either. In fact, I think most of those have been conclusively, utterly discredited, but I'll deal with the remaining claim. It is moral—okay, and I can only do Christianity this evening—is it moral to believe that your sins, yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might, if I wished, if I knew any of you, you were my friends or even if I didn't know you but I just loved the idea of you (compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity, by the way), but suppose I could say, “Look, you're in debt, I've just made a lot of money out of a God-bashing book, I'll pay your debts for you. Maybe you'll pay me back some day, but for now I can get you out of trouble.” I could say if I really loved someone who had been sentenced to prison if I can find a way of saying I'd serve your sentence, I'd try and do it. I could do what Sydney Carton does in a Tale of Two Cities, if you like—I'm very unlikely to do this unless you've been incredibly sweet to me—I'll take your place on the scaffold, but I can't take away your responsibilities. I can't forgive what you did, I can't say you didn't do it, I can't make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive middle eastern society was "scapegoating." You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat, you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. And you think you've taken away the sins of the tribe. This is a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility on which all ethics and all morality must depend. It has a further implication. I'm told that I have to have a share in this human sacrifice even though it took place long before I was born. I have no say in it happening, I wasn't consulted about it. Had I been present I would have been bound to do my best to stop the public torture and execution of an eccentric preacher. I would do the same even now. No, no, I'm implicated in it, I, myself, drove in the nails, I was present at Calvary, it confirms the original filthy sin in which I was conceived and born, the sin of Adam in Genesis. Again, this may sound a mad belief, but it is the Christian belief. Well it's here that we find something very sinister about monotheism and about religious practice in general: It is incipiently at least, and I think often explicitly, totalitarian. I have no say in this. I am born under a celestial dictatorship which I could not have had any hand in choosing. I don't put myself under its government. I am told that it can watch me while I sleep. I'm told that it can convict me of—here's the definition of totalitarianism—thought crime, for what I think I may be convicted and condemned. And that if I commit a right action, it's only to evade this punishment and if I commit a wrong action, I'm going to be caught up not just with punishment in life for what I've done which often follows axiomatically, but, no, even after I'm dead. In the Old Testament, gruesome as it is, recommending as it is of genocide, racism, tribalism, slavery, genital mutilation, in the displacement and destruction of others, terrible as the Old Testament gods are, they don't promise to punish the dead. There's no talk of torturing you after the earth has closed over the Amalekites. Only toward when gentle Jesus, meek and mild, makes his appearance are those who won't accept the message told they must depart into everlasting fire. Is this morality, is this ethics? I submit not only is it not, not only does it come with the false promise of vicarious redemption, but it is the origin of the totalitarian principle which has been such a burden and shame to our species for so long. I further think that it undermines us in our most essential integrity. It dissolves our obligation to live and witness in truth. Which of us would say that we would believe something because it might cheer us up or tell our children that something was true because it might dry their eyes? Which of us indulges in wishful thinking, who really cares about the pursuit of truth at all costs and at all hazards? Can it not be said, do you not, in fact, hear it said repeatedly about religion and by the religious themselves that, "Well it may not be really true, the stories may be fairy tales, the history may be dubious, but it provides consolation." Can anyone hear themselves saying this or have it said of them without some kind of embarrassment? Without the concession that thinking here is directly wishful, that, yes, it would be nice if you could throw your sins and your responsibilities on someone else and have them dissolved, but it's not true and it's not morally sound and that's the second ground of my indictment. [To Michael Cromartie] (Michael, you will tell me when I'm trespassing on the time of Dr. McGrath, won't you?) On our integrity, our basic integrity, knowing right from wrong and being able to choose a right action over a wrong one, I think one must repudiate the claim that one doesn't have this moral discrimination innately, that, no, it must come only from the agency of a celestial dictatorship which one must love and simultaneously fear. What is it like, I've never tried it, I've never been a cleric, what is it like to lie to children for a living and tell them that they have an authority, that they must love—compulsory love, what a grotesque idea—and be terrified of it at the same time. What's that like? I want to know. And that we don't have an innate sense of right and wrong, children don't have an innate sense of fairness and decency, which of course they do. What is it like? I can personalize it to this extent, my mother's Jewish ancestors are told that until they got to Sinai, they'd been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and they get to Mount Sinai only to be told it's not kosher after all. I'm sorry, excuse me, you must have more self-respect than that for ourselves and for others. Of course the stories are fiction. It's a fabrication exposed conclusively by Israeli archaeology. Nothing of the sort ever took place, but suppose we take the metaphor? It's an insult, it's an insult to us, it's an insult to our deepest integrity. No, if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn't have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else. Now we're told what we have to believe and this is—I'm coming now to the question of whether or not science, reason and religion are compatible or I would rather say reconcilable. The great Stephen J. Gould—the late, great Stephen J. Gould said that he believed they were non-overlapping magisteria; you can be both a believer and a person of faith. Sitting in front of me is a very distinguished—extremely distinguished scholar Francis Collins, helped us to unlock the human genome project, who is himself a believer. I'd love to hear from him, I hope we hear from him. I don't believe that he says his discoveries of the genome convinced him of the truth of religion. He holds it, as it were, independently. [to Francis Collins] I hope I do you no wrong, sir, in phrasing it like that. Here's why I, a non-scientist, will say that I think it's radically irreconcilable, I'd rather say, than incompatible. I've taken the best advice I can on how long Homo sapiens has been on the planet. Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, many others, and many discrepant views from theirs, reckon it's not more than 250,000 years, a quarter of a million years. It's not less, either. I think it's roughly accepted, [to Francis Collins] I think, sir you wouldn't disagree. 100,000 is the lowest I've heard and actually I was about to say, again not to sound too Jewish, I'll take 100,000. I only need 100,000, call it one hundred. For 100,000 years Homo sapiens was born, usually, well not usually, very often dying in the process or killing its mother in the process; life expectancy probably not much more than 20, 25 years, dying probably of the teeth very agonizingly, nearer to the brain as they are, or of hunger or of micro-organisms that they didn't know existed or of events such as volcanic or tsunami or earthquake types that would have been wholly terrifying and mysterious as well as some turf wars over women, land, property, food, other matters. You can fill in—imagine it for yourself what the first few tens of thousands of years were like. And we like to think learning a little bit in the process and certainly having gods all the way, worshipping bears fairly early on, I can sort of see why; sometimes worshipping other human beings, (big mistake, I'm coming back to that if I have time), this and that and the other thing, but exponentially perhaps improving, though in some areas of the world very nearly completely dying out, and a bitter struggle all along. Call it 100,000 years. According to the Christian faith, heaven watches this with folded arms for 98,000 years and then decides it's time to intervene and the best way of doing that would be a human sacrifice in primitive Palestine, where the news would take so long to spread that it still hasn't penetrated very large parts of the world and that would be our redemption of human species. Now I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that that is, what I've just said, which you must believe to believe the Christian revelation, is not possible to believe, as well as not decent to believe. Why is it not possible? Because a virgin birth is more likely than that. A resurrection is more likely than that and because if it was true, it would have two further implications: It would have to mean that the designer of this plan was unbelievably lazy and inept or unbelievably callous and cruel and indifferent and capricious, and that is the case with every argument for design and every argument for revelation and intervention that has ever been made. But it's now conclusively so because of the superior knowledge that we've won for ourselves by an endless struggle to assert our reason, our science, our humanity, our extension of knowledge against the priests, against the rabbis, against the mullahs who have always wanted us to consider ourselves as made from dust or from a clot of blood, according to the Koran, or as the Jews are supposed to pray every morning, at least not female or gentile. And here's my final point, because I think it's coming to it. The final insult that religion delivers to us, the final poison it injects into our system: It appeals both to our meanness, our self-centeredness and our solipsism and to our masochism. In other words, it's sadomasochistic. I'll put it like this: you're a clot of blood, you're a piece of mud, you're lucky to be alive, God fashioned you for his convenience, even though you're born in filth and sin and even though every religion that's ever been is distinguished principally by the idea that we should be disgusted by our own sexuality. Name me a religion that does not play upon that fact. So you're lucky to be here, originally sinful and covered in shame and filth as you are, you're a wretched creature, but take heart, the Universe is designed with you in mind and heaven has a plan for you. Ladies and gentlemen, I close by saying I can't believe there is a thinking person here who does not realize that our species would begin to grow to something like its full height if it left this childishness behind, if it emancipated itself from this sinister, childish nonsense. And I now commit you to the good Dr. McGrath. Thank you.

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Neil Rieck (rationalist, humanist, deist)
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.