'Worse than Hell': Christopher Hitchens on the Religious Mind
The controversial writer says that people in thrall to religion are 'groveling, abandoned serfs.'
BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen
It's no surprise that a man who questioned Mother Teresa's morals should have a larger beef with faith. Christopher Hitchens' latest book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, attacks every belief system that rejects science or seeks to control its followers, whether or not it is theistic. Hitchens spoke with Beliefnet recently about the book--and why even religion's purported consolations hold no allure for him.
What do you imagine or think the world would be like without religion?
I find I can't do it, and believe me, I've tried. I'm sort of resigned to this--an argument that has no conclusion. I'll give you an example. My dear wife has, I would say, probably never opened a religious book, and seems to be one of those people to whom the whole idea is utterly remote and absurd. I ought to wish, oughtn't I, as an atheist, an anti-theist, in fact, that everyone was like her. But somehow, and this may be an irony at my expense, I don't wish that. I rather enjoy the argument. All I'm doing is contributing my little bit to what is humanity's oldest disagreement.
Though I still have to say that, while I can't imagine life without religion, I also cannot imagine what it would be like to be leading a religious life or the life of a believer. If I'm in a political argument, I think I can, with reasonable accuracy and without boasting, put the other person's side of the case at least as well as they could. One has to be able to say that in any well-conducted argument. But it's not possible for me to think myself into the position of someone who is a believing Roman Catholic. I can't imagine what it's like. I hope that's not a failure of imagination on my part. There's been some research in cognitive science, I'm told, that discloses that there have always been perhaps 10 to 15 percent of people who are, as Pascal puts it, so made that they cannot believe. To us, when people talk about faith, it's white noise.
But I'm very intrigued with it, and I have a lot of friends who are very deeply religious. It's with them that, as I say in my book, I most enjoy arguing.
There's a rumor that you've said you can't stand anyone who believes in God.
If I said that, I must have been out of temper, or been quoted out of context. There are moments when I do think that, and I might have been caught in one of those moments. But I would never write that down as a statement and put my name to it.
My book opens with quite a long address to my religious friends, in an attempt to show that I'm not just setting out to ridicule them.
How do you think atheists should get along interpersonally with people of strong faith? Obviously, if they're trying to convert you, that's one thing, but if they're just...
I don't mind them trying to convert me at all. I welcome it. I've proved to be as difficult to convert as I am to hypnotize.
How many people have tried to hypnotize you?
Oh, several. I really ought to give up smoking. So not only did I try it, but I sort of wanted it to work. I wasn't resisting. I was really hoping it would happen, and nothing did. It seemed to come to snake oil to me, but to take a step back, a lot of my religious friends have a habit that they don't realize irritates me, of saying that I wouldn't go on about this so much and write about it as much as I do, if I wasn't secretly a rather religious person. And that I'm really just a seeker in disguise. I basically know that's not true of me myself.
Yet you've made a swing politically from the left at least somewhat to the right. Do you think there's a chance you would swing from unbelief to faith?
I'd rather not put it like that, but I know what you mean. It would have to be the equivalent of undergoing some transformation of the chemistry of my brain. I might have a stroke or become an epileptic and become religious, I suppose. But it would take that.
But that doesn't mean I'm not always fascinated to talk to people of faith.
Your book discusses the problems with the Abrahamic faiths, but then says Eastern religion is not the answer. It seemed like your main criticism of Eastern religion wasn't so much about its tenets so much as one sex abuse scandal at one ashram.
Oh, no. My objection was to the sign [at the entrance to one tent] saying, "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate." It's the idea that the whole effort of meditation is to try and dissolve your mind, which is the only thing you've got that's unequivocally worth having.
But don't you sometimes get sick of your mind running on and on--and want to calm it a little bit?
No. I know what you mean by the question, and I suppose I know what you mean by the temptation. But no. It's very quickly cured by the reflection that my brain hasn't got that long to run. And there will be plenty of time to be dead. The fact that my brain doesn't give me much peace doesn't worry me. I'm grateful for it. When people say, "But you could have bliss, and calm, and Nirvana," I say, "I don't want it. I don't believe you could give it to me. But if you could, I would not take you up on the offer. I don't want a life without anxiety and conflict and combat. To the contrary, I want all those things in large measure."
Religion promises release from anxiety and pressure and conflict, so...
I think that's one of the most contemptible things about it.
Quite a number of atheists will tell you that they wish they could believe; they just can't make themselves do it. I don't understand that. [They] say, "Well, it's a shame it's not true." And I say, "No it's not, it's a good thing it's not true." Because if it was true, you would be permanently supervised from the moment you were born until forever after you were dead. You'd always be someone else's creature. And the only duty you would owe him, he having done nothing but casually create you, would be constant adoration that would lead to eventual bliss and the dissolution of the personality. Well, I can't imagine anything more horrible. It's a really ghastly idea. It's worse than hell.