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Christopher Hitchens not great, says this “atheist”

It depressed me a bit to write the title for this column, playing on one of the late Hitchen’s book titles, God is not Great.

I think nothing can ever be achieved by slamming other people’s religious beliefs. Those people are going to continue holding on to their beliefs. Perhaps even more dearly. The attack just creates more division.

Don’t get me wrong: there are things I am not happy with in religions, especially the ridiculous taboo on sex. If adults are having consensual sex, that’s nobody else’s business. I dislike the hype of various happy clappy movements and the ability of their leaders to con sickening amounts of money (called tithes and offerings) out of spellbound people. I know of people who have lost their retirement plans this way.

But there are also a lot, and I mean a lot, of Christians and people of other religious persuasions who are very good people, salt of the earth, with deep (and often quiet) convictions about their beliefs. I know this as I went through a long Christian phase and have befriended people of other faiths.

I have listened to a number of Hitchen’s debates with Stephen Fry and religious people and read a number of his articles.

I glanced through books like God is not Great but they do not interest me. (I realise I can be attacked for not reading the book “properly” but believe I got the boring gist.)

Judging by the title alone, God is not Great, the obvious direction the book will take the reader is that he is going to attack Christianity and say it contains a cistern full of fairy tale stories.

In other words, I know the book has no new idea, or even a scintilla of a new idea. The majority of people who would read a book like that surely have no interest in dialogue with people of other beliefs. They are just sneering at other people’s faiths.

Hitchens rammed into other people’s beliefs like a killer whale into its prey. With statements like “Jesus Christ is Santa Claus for adults” all he really did was create more rifts.

What did Hitchens actually achieve? Did he contribute to world peace and harmony? I don’t think so.

He landed on people’s convictions like a parasite instead of focusing on solutions. To me, there is only one potential solution, dialogue among world religions and even other belief systems, and know I am stating the obvious in saying so. Dialogue, and thus transformation, is the quest of organisations such as that led by that great Catholic monk, Father Thomas Keating.

Instead of being intellectual, the work of organisations like this is experiential, which enjoins dialogue and cultivating relationships, not more gall between groupings.

Dialogue is my key argument here.

Not intense, egotistical debate like that offered by Hitchens. When I showed an interest in the Buddhist experience as a pose to Buddhist thinking when living in Johannesburg, I went to retreats conducted by Buddhist monks … on the property of Catholic churches. A number of Christian churches will never allow that.

However, a number of Catholic leaders worldwide will allow Buddhist gatherings in their churches (probably frowned on by the Vatican), as evinced by the likes of Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton and Anthony de Mello.

Hitchens was a formidable intellectual, with a Wildean turn of phrase. However, his knowledge of mysticism is not experiential, as anyone will know IF they have spent some time in meditation and observed other “spiritual practices”. I have. It opens up doors to enormous, inexpressible peace and harmony in oneself and, therefore, in our relationships with others, which brings me back to my key point: dialogue. Not acid, sarcastic debates which amuse the crowds, invite sneers of derision.

We need to seek mutual understanding and transformation, which our planet sorely needs, a planet that is a home for us all, in our care, and which we have screwed up.

Hitchens developed a personal niche market and a career out of attacking religions and various spiritual leaders. He did this too much so for my “atheist” liking. His cutting critiques do not open up true dialogue as, for example, what many Catholics and Buddhists have done in retreats together.

See the Dalai Lama’s Good Heart or An Open Heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. But reading the stuff is nowhere good enough. That risks being purely the intellectual, even the discursive. I am not knocking intellectualism: it just isn’t enough.

As Einstein once famously said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” That is to say, intellectualism created our many problems; it won’t solve them. Ever. We just get deluded into believing more thinking will solve our problems because waffling along is just such a nice activity. It appears productive.

Learning to practice what the various spiritual leaders above speak about is — in my opinion — our only hope of transformation, of saving our planet, and us.

Hitchens offered little towards this; he knocked spiritual belief systems which actually do carry many transformative treasures in their story-myths* of self-sacrifice (such as The Christ) and compassion. These are beyond the scope of this article to go into. We focus too much on the (at times) cruel histories of religions and not on their many treasures.

Often I get labelled an atheist. But that is just a very limiting, distorting label. All the accuser is seeing is the label, not the person, and hence the need for us to get rid of labels and experience a bit more of meditation and the compassionate, contemplative life. I know, I sorely need to myself.

Yes, I admire Hitchens’ turn of thought many times but I don’t think his legacy is that great and I know this blog could get me into a spot of trouble.

*When I use the word myth I do not mean something anywhere near as simplistic as a lie. A religious belief contains story-myths that have evolved to hold together harmoniously a society and give it meaning. It also explains human existence and purpose and offers consolation for suffering. Myth points to the ineffable miracle of every day, of creation, but is not “it”, just as the lotus is not the muck from which it blooms, but the muck is how it gets to be a lotus. As many spiritual masters will say about the inherited wisdom they teach, “I am just offering you the raft. Once you can swim in the ocean, you abandon the raft.”

Author

  • CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from www.knowledgethirstmedia.co.za. His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/Rod_in_China

128 Comments

  1. Charlotte Charlotte 31 December 2011

    Electricity was always there – aeons before we could tap into it and use it for our own purpose. Magnetism was always there.
    We cannot see electricity or magnetism or sound waves or radio waves …We are now able to access these and use them and ‘see’ them with the use of machines and technology.
    We cannot see molecules or other universes … yet we know they exist.
    We cannot see thought waves . How much more is there that we cannot ‘see’? … that has not yet been discovered? …
    How much more is there that we are not even aware of?
    How much more is beyond our comprehension and even our imagination?

    Discounting religion for what it is, discussions like this should be preceded by the factoring : “What is your understanding of ‘a higher power’?

    “It is as frightening to think we are alone in the universe, as to think we are not.”

  2. Enough Said Enough Said 31 December 2011

    Ad hominem

  3. Enough Said Enough Said 31 December 2011

    @Rod

    Far more productive than reading Hitchens book would be trying to connect the dots between some segments of the athiest movement and the ‘sketical science’ movement that is sponsored by big oil and big pharma.

    Astroturfers like the Tea Party in America who are backed by Kock Brothers.

    If you come across some good investigative journalism on this please let me know.

    >>>>

  4. Mefiante Mefiante 31 December 2011

    Brandon G. Withrow asks Will 2012 Be the Year of the Atheist? In the process, he points out that—

    Being an open atheist, then, is a path toward marginalization.

    That is very clear from many of the condescending comments posted here.

  5. Porcupine Porcupine 31 December 2011

    As modern science and quantum mechanics advance, athiesim and religious belief will probably become marginalised. As what athiests dismiss as belief in the supernatural starts to be verified by science more and more as subtle fields of energy, they will be proven wrong. Only religious fundamentalists that go by the book (and a few misguided athiests) can argue with science and believe they are correct?

    Learn an ancient time tested non-religious (non-faith) meditation technique to experience higher states of consciousness, and you can experience in advance the subtler fields of energy modern science is taking a century or two to rediscover. The ancients had it well documented.

    A good book to read but not beleive a word of until you experience those fields of energy yourself is “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yoginanda.

  6. Porcupine Porcupine 31 December 2011

    @Mefiante

    Athiesism is fine when they can argue their point instead of just thump the Chritopher Hitchen book. If athiests feel marginalised and others being condescending towards them, it must be their karma, or Newtons Third Law of action-reaction. Stop being condescending and trying to marginalise others. This law of action-reaction is also contained in all the main religious scriptures, the Bible says, as you sow, so shall you reap. Science and religion have so much in common. :-0

  7. Enough Said Enough Said 31 December 2011

    I would rather see 2012 be ‘Year of the Rhino’. They are not a bunch of bigoted self-centered egotists.

  8. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 31 December 2011

    In what way is being an atheist a route to being marginalized. The comments on this blog are generally very antagonistic to religious people. The tone of the language is violent and hateful. Religious people are told that they are stupid and unintelligent. We arer blamed for violence and anti social behavior. None of the atheists who post here seem interested in looking at the true history of the events they so roundly condemn. I would say on these blogs being an orthodox Catholic is a recipe for marginalization.

  9. brian b brian b 1 January 2012

    Spoke to a mate today who is under the impression that Tony Blair is still prime minister of Britain.
    He has never heard of Christopher Hitchen and does not give a toss who he is/was and what his book is about.
    Uninformed , non-academic but living a full and meaningful life.
    So what’s my point?
    Its not what you ponder on but how you live life that matters..

  10. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 1 January 2012

    @Enough said

    Still ignoring the wise words of Matthew? Are you a one man promotion campaign FOR atheism?

    @Isabella

    Umm, what true history? Did not Bruno burn at the stakes? Was the Black man not deemed stupid and undeserving of basic human rights on the basis of the Bible? Did the Dutch Reformed Church play such an enlightened role in the 20th century?

    Was slavery not approved by the Catholic Church itself? Did the Nazis not receive support from the Vatican itself? Has the Catholic Church not fed anti-semitsm throughout the centuries, leading to forced expulsions of Jews from Spain and several other countries for instance? If they were lucky enough to be allowed to live, that is. Ever heard of the Papal State, and its engagements in worldly and military affairs?

    Religious wars, plaguing Northern Ireland, The German lands (30 year war springs to mind), The Dutch independence war, similar conflicts in England, thousands of local revolts and conflicts in Europe as a result of different interpretations of the Bible? Child marriages of children as young as three? The local lords often having the right of the first night (!)?

    Anyone of a religious persuasion that still wants to point fingers at Islam for similar offenses?

    Of course that is but one side of the story. The other side of the story is the story as can be told of say a Beyers Naude, Martin Luther King and many others. But it is telling such people often had to fight their own church hierarchy.

  11. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 2 January 2012

    @Enough said

    Learn to spell “atheist”, “atheism”, “ad hominem” and “illiterate” before you lambast others for their perceived shortcomings. Matthew applies again.

    Is calling everyone who does not agree with you demonspawn showing the love of God? Is it not annoying that it is obvious for anyone to see that you don’t even take the words of one of the Apostles to heart, and yet demand that atheists behave in a perfect manner?

    I could write something similar of some other posters, with respect to the categorical imperative.

    It is always the fools who are most successful of promoting the views they strongly disagree with. That is true for both religious and atheist people. For every delusion atheist there is a delusional religious person, probably more since there are more religious people than atheists.

    It is exactly those who insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong, who make it impossible to achieve real progress in making people understand each other better. Religion is not the problem. The problem is when we use anything arbitrary to prescribe how others ought to live.

  12. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 2 January 2012

    “For every delusion atheist there is a delusional religious person, probably more since there are more religious people than atheists.”

    Ought to be: “For every delusional atheist there is a delusional religious person. Probably more than one since there are more religious people than atheists.”

  13. Enough Said Enough Said 2 January 2012

    @The Village Idiot

    The uninformed/ignorant cannot distinguish between faith based religion, athiesm, and spiritual experience (three seperate categories). The uninformed/ignorant believe in two categories, religion and athiesm, that is why athiests like yourself are dismissed by non-religious people like me.

    Oh dear, I guess this above important point will be constued as another ad hominem by those who like to play the victim.

    Apologies about my spelling and typos in my posts, I thought we were actually trying to talk about more important issues than snipe about spelling mistakes. :-)

  14. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 2 January 2012

    @Enough said

    Show me where I have sided against spirituality or said that it is okay to disrespect people’s beliefs. I have not said such a thing. It is my main objection when beliefs are used to justify appalling behaviour towards people of a different persuasion.

    For me, “love thy neighbour” is more meaningful than condemning men for any of the many abominations listed in the Bible, Torah or Qu’ran.

    You are making things up to protect your illusions of being right. Spirituality 101 and 102: that is exactly letting go of such illusions. Claiming you are spiritual, or morally good is easy. Everyone can do it, provided they can talk, but few people actually walk the talk.
    Any spiritual person who can gleefully call someone a “son or daughter of satan”, has shot his own credibility to pieces. A similar thing can be said of rabid atheists, but since you deliberately ignore such parts of my posts, I won’t even bother spelling it out for you.

    Insularity breeds contempt, and that is exactly the problem Rod is railing against. You are also demonstrating why these inter-religious talks are not as fruitful as one would hope.

  15. Enough Said Enough Said 2 January 2012

    Village Idiot

    So where have you acknowledged spirituality on this thread, except your last post?

    Where have you acknowledged that true spirituality is not a belief? You carry on and on about belief. You have missed the point my China.

    So in the spiritual realm there are no sons and daughters of Satan? No negative/dark forces out there?

    Rod tried to be conciliatory, who attacked him? Athiests because he had not read their Hitchins bible.

    Time for people to experience higher states of consciousness, why not explain in terms of quantum physics and modern science to stop this two sided athiest/religious non-spirtual faith based debate.

    “Inter-religious” there you go again, missed the point again. Yawn…..yawn. ….yawn….

  16. Har Bhajan Har Bhajan 2 January 2012

    Possibly the greatest snippet of wisdom I have ever been exposed to as an adult male came from Yogi Bhajan who said:
    “Learn not to react, rather act from your wisdom and neutrality”.

    I stop and ponder it each time before hitting the “send/post” button.

  17. Porcupine Porcupine 2 January 2012

    Peace be with you all.

    Before you have this debate again, listen to Deepak Chopra’s audio “Escaping the Prison of the Intellect” or even better get a copy of his book “Quantum Healing”.

    I avoid his more recent books, in my opinion they are popular and of not much worth, but that audio and first book are really good. His second book, “Perfect Heath” is an excellent book for heath nuts, but after that, boring, boring, boring….

  18. Porcupine Porcupine 2 January 2012

    health not heath

  19. The Village Idiot The Village Idiot 2 January 2012

    @Enough said

    And where have you acknowledged that not all atheists are the same? Nowhere. Did I tell Rod to read Hitchens? Nope. You are not even bothering to READ what people say. You ASSUME people say something; as if the template you have for “athiests” must hold true for all “athiests”. When the template does not hold up, you keep on ranting and raving as if it did. Your whole diatribe misses my point again. You are willfully ignorant and telling us time and again how proud you are of it.

    But that is apparently perfectly permissible. Just as it is apparently perfectly permissible to call people satanspawn, less evolved, idiots; if that is being conciliatory, then I wonder what you deem hostile.

    Quantum physics is completely irrelevant to come to understand spirituality. Just as telescopes are useless to find God. You fail to see that you expound a belief in stating that it is relevant; it should not matter to you or anyone for that matter. Do you think Buddha and the Zen Masters worry about the Higgs bosons, neutrinos and the Heisenberg principle?

    There is no point in explaining spirituality in such a way, just as there is no point in describing a holy text on a molecular level. Does that mean a holy text is without meaning? Of course not.

    But it is hilarious that you are displaying the same unenlightened attitude you accuse others of. Methinks thou dost protest too much.

  20. Paul Barrett Paul Barrett 3 January 2012

    @Rod: I can understand why you might not see anything new in Hitchens’ book. I suspect there is nothing new to say on the topic. I agree that he is mostly preaching to the converted (not unlike the religious.) I also suspect he wrote it in an attempt to reach those who are undecided, or have become less than convinced by their religion.

    I appreciate that you are attempting to seriously engage with his views, however, and with the criticism given in the comments (unlike certain other commentators who mindlessly spout anti-atheist propaganda – a common reaction, along with appeals to mythological authority and (deliberate?) misinterpretation of concepts such as evolution, which in part explains why atheists at times become aggressive and, yes, condescending.)

    I myself use meditation to deal with anger issues, and I find it very effective. I don’t associate the effects with anything spiritual, because of my generally non-spiritual frame of reference (I am a materialist in the non-consumerist sense of the word.) I don’t have a problem with others feeling that their experience is spiritual, provided they don’t belittle my experience or claim that theirs is the only true experience.

  21. Paul Barrett Paul Barrett 3 January 2012

    I’ll leave this conversation with a quote from Marcus Aurelius (found in the comments thread of an article someone linked to earlier,) which I think nicely sums up my views on living a moral life and the role of god(s) in respect of morality (particularly relevant because certain commentators want to cast atheism as a route to inevitable immoral behaviour):

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

  22. Paul Barrett Paul Barrett 3 January 2012

    Okay, I said I would leave the conversation, but had meant to reply to Porcupine, re: spirituality and Quantum Mechanics.

    All claims of Quantum Mechanics providing evidence for spiritual/mystical claims stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of Quantum Mechanics. I have read some of the books attempting to link the two, and I have also read texts by people who have actually studied Quantum Mechanics. The latter texts quite clearly show that the former result from either misunderstanding of the theory behind Quantum Mechanics, or deliberate misrepresentation. Either way, the former texts are not to be taken seriously.

  23. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 3 January 2012

    Village Idiot
    Umm, what true history? Did not Bruno burn at the stakes? Was the Black man not deemed stupid and undeserving of basic human rights on the basis of the Bible? Did the Dutch Reformed Church play such an enlightened role in the 20th century?

    Was slavery not approved by the Catholic Church itself? No it was not

    Did the Nazis not receive support from the Vatican itself? No they did not

    ?

    Ever heard of the Papal State, and its engagements in worldly and military affairs?
    Yes I have how does that disporve anything

    Religious wars, plaguing Northern Ireland, The German lands (30 year war springs to mind), The Dutch independence war, similar conflicts in England, thousands of local revolts and conflicts in Europe as a result of different interpretations of the Bible? Child marriages of children as young as three? The local lords often having the right of the first night (!)? Where did you read that a penny horrible?

    Now let us in response look at the secular state which sort of starts with the French Revolution. What did that lead to why the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars.

    Look at the last century. Who started WWI, WWII, The Vietnam War, Iraq I and II why my dear chap the modern secular state that so many posters here seem to be in absolute awe of. I would suggest to you that there has been more wanton death and destruction since the rise of the secualr state than the rest of recorded history combined
    Try and not live up to your avatar

  24. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 3 January 2012

    Actually Village Idiot it was the Catholic teaching that we are made in the image and likeness of God that provides the basis for respect for all human beings and the basis for human rights as we know it. WIthout the rise of Christianity we would still be throwing neonates into the fires fo Baal and watching galdiators fight to the death on a Saturday afternoon. It is you who has the poor understanding of history I am afraid.

  25. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 4 January 2012

    @Isabella:
    Do you recall the very interesting history of Hypatia?

  26. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 4 January 2012

    The story of Hypatia has been twisted beyond belief to try and make it fit into an anti Church rhetoric. There is no evidence she was killed for proposing polytheism that is a modernist re-interpretation.

  27. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 7 January 2012

    Okay, for the record I have now read God is Not Great. Nothing new. No suggested way forward as I intimated. I didn’t need someone to take me through the endless inconsistencies of the Old testament or the New. Or Islam borrowing from the Catholic church. Or the horrors of paediophilia and genital mutiliation.. There is nothing that is even vaguely a new idea, or a suggested way forward. Except the last paragraph, that we should know the “enemy”. Which suggests war and more conflict, less understanding, no dialogue. To some extent the book is an insult to one’s intelligence, afraid to say.

  28. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 9 January 2012

    Rod your last sentence sums it up. Hitch did not want dialogue. To those of us who have encountered English public school trained debating bullies before he was easy to see through. To those who were enthralled by his upper class accent it was a bit more difficult.

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