|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS // BOOK EXCERPT|
Excerpt from Letters to a Young Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens earned the ire of many with his unflattering portrayal of Mother Teresa in The Missionary Postion. Here he addresses a warning to the young contrarian about the damage inflicted, physical and psychological, in the name of religion over the centuries.
You seem to have guessed, from some remarks I have already made in passing, that I am not a religious believer. In order to be absolutely honest, I should not leave you with the impression that I am part of the generalized agnosticism of our culture. I'm not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. Reviewing the false claims of religion I do not wish, as some sentimental agnostics affect to wish, that they were true. I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.
Why do I say that? Well, there may be people who wish to live their lives under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and [around the clock] monitoring [a celestial North Korea]. But I cannot [personally] imagine anything more horrible or grotesque. It would be worse, in a way, if the supervision was benign...
I think that this conviction does bear on the mental and moral resources that are necessary if one hopes to live [on the contrary, if one hopes to live in dissent or if one hopes to live] "as if" one were free. In a much-quoted reflection on America's original sin [of slavery], Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I remember that god is just." However, if there really was a god and he really was just, then there would be little enough for believers to tremble about; it would be a consolation that infinitely outweighed any imaginable earthly care.
I have met many brave men and women, morally superior to myself, whose courage in adversity derives from their faith. But whenever they have chosen to speak or write about it, I find myself appalled by the instant decline of their intellectual and moral standards. They want god on their side and they believe they are doing his work - what is this, even at it's very best, but an extreme form of solipsism? [In other words "don't mind me I'm just doing god's work, I'm very modest." A poor syllogism, or a very humble humility, is defined by them.] They proceed from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind, and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.
This arrogance and illogic is inseparable even from the meekest and most altruistic religious affirmations. A true believer must believe that he or she is here for a purpose and is an object of real interest to a Supreme Being; he or she must also claim to have at least an inkling of what that Supreme Being desires. I have been called arrogant myself in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator - that's beyond my conceit. I therefore have no choice but to find something suspect even in the humblest believer, let alone in the great law-givers and edict-makers of whose "flock" (and what a revealing word that is) they form a part.
It might sound provincial and (oh dear) Eurocentric to say this, but not even those of us who had taken the gloomiest view of the arms race and the Cold War had ever expected to see a full-dress reprise, in Europe, of internment camps, the mass murder of civilians, the reinstitution of torture and rape and deportation as acts of policy. This was the sort of thing we had read about from six decades before; some of us (including myself) had met and got to know some survivors of that period. And of course, in a recess of our minds we had played the imaginary game: what would I do about the knock on the door; how would I react if the neighbors were being marched off to the station?
That tired analogy turned out to be uncomfortably useful, because when all this ghastliness did get under way again, the political class in Europe and America behaved for the most part with the same wretched combination of complacency and complicity that it had exhibited when Fascism first came to call.
Close This Window