It has taken me longer than I expected to write this. It is somewhat difficult to write a memorial for a man you never knew. Yet, somehow I felt that his passing was an important loss—yet why? Why was Christopher Hitchens important; was he important? Yes. Yes, he was important. What he had to say was important, for he has helped us all to see that not only is it OK to be a Doubting Thomas, but that we really must be one. This is an especially important lesson for us ex-CoGers—as I’m sure I need not explain. Whether one retains a belief in a deity or not, we have all learned to temper our unquestioning faith in Organized Religion, in the men who run them, and in individual
But that’s the very thing, isn’t it? That is what we (and nearly all people in all religions—esp. in monotheisms) have been told time and time again not to do. One cannot Question. One must not trust their Reason. Sure, we were encouraged to “reason with god”, but only if that reasoning ended up agreeing with everything the ministry told us the bible was saying. Additionally, we were prohibited from pursuing alternate explanations through “dissident literature”. We were told to Prove All Things, but again, like “reasoning with god”, only if we end up proving that those things were so, not whether they were so.
Hitchens has often said, “Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things… one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.” How many atrocities have been done through the agency of Unquestionable Authority? Even the Communist nations had religious-style dogma, and instead of an invisible deity, had rather their own human leaders as the Supreme Law of the land (the current President of North Korea is the long dead father of Kim Jung-Il, and was, of course, born of a virgin). Their word was law, their every whim a command. The movie Kingdom of Heaven has a wonderful example of this kind of situation when the priests (very political priests) cry out “God wills it!” as the Be All and End All of arguments. When one cannot argue with those who claim to speak for Mr. Deity, then anything they say (or that they claim the Holy Book says) cannot be questioned and therefore must be obeyed. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
But this article isn’t about criticizing religion; it is about a man who dared criticize it, and about the idea he loudly proclaimed that it is both good and necessary to have that freedom! For centuries, institutions like the Catholic Church held unquestioned (and more importantly, unquestionable) “spiritual” authority that very often trumped the earthly authority of Kings. Well, as the old saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What was done with this power? Besides influencing international politics (and abusing altar boys), Crusades were launched, Inquisitions were held; people were tortured and slaughtered in the name of Mr. Deity and none of it could be stopped because of the privileged position of Unquestionable Authority that religion had in society.
Today, however, since society has changed (thanks in large part to the secular values of the Enlightenment), religion is not as cruel (b/c people have reinterpreted it through the new prism), nor does it have the temporal power it once wielded. However, it still holds a privileged place in society—one that is generally held to be unquestionable. Sure, people disagree about specific dogmas and doctrines, but the idea of religion, of faith in God, are still held by the vast majority to be unquestionable. That is where Hitchens comes in.
Hitchens had the moral fiber to stand up and say (in essence), “This cow is not sacred! This cow is nothing more than a bovine quadruped…and soon supper!” In reality, though, he did say:
- “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
- “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
- “Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”
- “I try to deny myself any illusions or delusions, and I think that this perhaps entitles me to try and deny the same to others, at least as long as they refuse to keep their fantasies to themselves.”
- “Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of ‘the flock.”
- “Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we do not take literally the tenth-hand reports of frightened and illiterate peasants who claim to have seen miracles or to have had encounters with messiahs and prophets and redeemers who were, like them, mere humans. And this is also why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation.”
- “God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was quite the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.”
Whether you agree with his lack of belief in the supernatural or not, it should be obvious how important skepticism of this type is. Because of the societal taboo against “questioning religion” or questioning Faith, some people may not even realize it is an option! With the groundwork of unquestionable authority laid, all the unscrupulous have to do is convince people that their version of Faith/Religion is true. Half the work is done for them already! It is precisely Hitchens’ kind of public Doubting and Questioning that has made some people very defensive and angry.
It was Hitchens’ courage and moral fortitude to dare question the unquestionable that helped me through the process of leaving the controlling cult of the PCG. Listening to his debates, and reading his articles/books helped immeasurably in me not finding myself in another CoG splinter. All that he has said is important for the world to hear, but I write this mostly because of what those words meant for me.
Thank you, Mr. Hitchens.