I recently had the good fortune to meet and have dinner with Christopher Hitchens, the English-American secularist and self-styled polemicist who has written prolifically on everything from Islamic extremism to Mother Theresa to his own self-inflicted waterboarding. Aside from noticing his works while browsing the religion section of my local Borders, I first discovered Hitchens when watching an online documentary called “The Four Horsemen,” the title of which refers to four giants of the modern atheist movement: Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author Sam Harris, Hitchens, and Tufts University philosophy professor Dan Dennett, who I believe to be one of the greatest intellectuals of our day.
What was remarkable about the dialogue was that it revealed the genuine disagreement that exists among atheists about the role of their belief system in contemporary society and the approach that they ought to adopt when dealing with the religious. Dawkins, in his typically acerbic style, argues for the utter dissolution of all forms of religion, and denies that spirituality qua spirituality has ever been a force for good in the world. Rather, he claims that any apparent good done in the name of religion has actually been motivated by secularism, and only adopts the mantle of religion to protect itself from a largely orthodox zeitgeist. Hitchens, with some exceptions, generally agrees with this view. The most interesting argument made in the film, and one that he elaborates on further in his 2006 book Breaking the Spell, is Dan Dennett’s claim that moderate religion not only has the potential to be beneficial, but may even be necessary if we are to rid the world of religious extremism. More on this in a moment.
It was only a few weeks after I had watched “The Four Horsemen” that I found out that my college would be hosting Hitchens for “a night of social commentary,” and I was fortunate enough to be included in a group of about ten students invited to have dinner with him before his presentation. In real life, Hitchens is exactly what he appears to be in televised interviews or YouTube videos: sarcastically witty, profoundly knowledgeable, and completely at home in the realm of rhetoric. He has an uncanny ability to immediately appreciate the flaws in any argument, and his facility with language is dazzling; his most intellectually complex statements are tossed around like casual bromides, and even those reactions that seem impulsive and instinctive come out sounding polished and organic. It also helps that he has a British accent.
His talk dealt with “threats to free expression,” examples of which included the fatwa pronounced on author Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomenei of Iran after the publication of Rushdie’s controversial book “The Satanic Verses,” and the furor that erupted in 2005 over a Danish cartoonist’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. To Hitchens, the evil of religious censorship is only part of the problem. The true horror is the relative ease with which others capitulate in the face of extremist anger. He decried not only the Ayatollah and all those who called for the killing of Rushdie in the aftermath of the fatwa, but also every bookstore that refused to sell the book and every library that refused to keep it on its shelves. In discussing the Danish Muhammad cartoon, Hitchens criticized CNN for not airing any actual image of the item that was causing so much controversy. He further claimed that he asked the producers of a CNN program on which he appeared to discuss the matter whether they were displaying such sensitivity because they were afraid. The answer, allegedly, was yes.
During the question-and-answer period that followed the talk, Hitchens was no less incisive, at one point replying to a student by wondering aloud why she wasn’t “able to make an actual question out of that.” I asked him if he could ever conceive of a situation in which censorship of any kind might be justified. He explained that, in principle, national security may at times require it, but that in most circumstances nobody is “good enough” to deserve the title of censor.
At the dinner before the talk, Hitchens got into a spirited back-and-forth with a student regarding his support for the Iraq War. He expertly rebutted the criticisms of his position, concluding the debate by adding that “if you try to say anything else at this point, you will only convict yourself of not knowing what you’re talking about” (my paraphrase).
It was at that point that I decided to steer the conversation away from foreign affairs by asking whether he agreed with the view that Dan Dennett expresses in “The Four Horsemen” that moderate religion is essential to eradicating extremism, and that atheists have not and cannot in principle make any dent in the problem because their views are dismissed from the outset by the dogmatists they hope to persuade. According to this thinking, reform can only be realized if it is spearheaded by moderates within a religious tradition who are willing to engage their more orthodox brethren in a dialogue about their respective theological positions.
Hitchens scoffed at the notion and told me it was absurd to believe that extremists are only angry because people like him are making them angry. I told him this wasn’t what I meant at all. What I was asking was whether he thought it prudent to criticize moderate religion when it might hold the elusive key to ending fundamentalism – a goal that Dennett and I believe might be beyond the ability of atheists to accomplish. He conceded that in certain parts of Africa, Christian organizations have been more effective than secular ones at getting ideological reactionaries to agree to stop practicing female genital mutilation.
Did I actually win an argument against Christopher Hitchens? Probably not, but considering what happened to everyone else who tried to challenge him, I’m happy to chalk up a draw as a victory.