Christmas with Christopher Hitchens
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Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award, and it remains entrenched on numerous bestseller lists months after its release. Atheism, as a cause and a debate, has been reinvigorated in the past couple of years, with books on Hitchens' side of the argument by Sam Harris (Letter To A Christian Nation) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) all selling remarkably well. It's probably hard to rally people around a cause that asks you to not believe in something, but Hitchens has successfully tapped into a growing populace of doubters and disbelievers. At the risk of fatwa and lightning bolts, The A.V. Club recently visited Hitchens for a holiday-inspired conversation about God, eggnog, Hanukkah, virgins, plastic trees, Kwanzaa, and of course, satanic imps.
The A.V. Club: You recently wrote a piece for Slate called "Bah, Hanukkah" where you call the holiday, among other things, a celebration of "Jewish backwardness." Haven't you ever seen Munich? Did you endure any backlash?
Christopher Hitchens: No, what you get is interesting. With the book, there are far more people who've been dying for someone to say this than there are those who say, "How can you insult my faith?" Our profession—if we can call it that—of journalism makes the assumption that people are overwhelmingly pious in this country. This is not a correct assumption. The fastest-growing group in the country is those who profess no faith and go to no church. There's some recent research on it. It's reputable research. It may be as high as about 8 percent, and it's growing very fast. It's twice as big as it was 10 years ago. And I'll bet you they'll say it's also among people who are fairly intelligent and well-educated. So it's some tens of millions of people. And you wouldn't know they existed from the way the subject is covered in the press or on TV.
I can tell you as one who spent most of his book tour in the Deep South, by design. I said to the publishers, "I want to go not on the usual run to Seattle and Chicago and New York and San Francisco and Berkeley. I want to do those in the end, but I want to go to Atlanta and Austin and Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham." And I did. I spoke a lot of the time in churches, or in debates at every stop. Usually, for some reason, they were Baptists—ministers or academics. And what I discovered is that the people who actually do go to church and do say that they're Baptists, you find incredible numbers of skeptics among them, people who go for non-religious reasons. And they have a lot of doubt and uncertainty as well. Most of the Jewish people I know had no idea that [article] was the true story about Hanukkah. They were very interested to discover it.
AVC: There was a reaction piece by Daniel Radosh on The Huffington Post, claiming that your assessment wasn't factual.
CH: That was a foolish piece by a very clever guy. Daniel's quite a good humor writer, he's just got this all wrapped around the axle. He says Hanukkah can be whatever you want it to be. Only up to a point is that true. If you ask the Orthodox—which is the only reason some Jews do know about this—the rude word used by Orthodox Jews to describe Reform or secular Jews is "Hellenized." Rabbi [Meir David] Kahane, do you remember him? He was a homicidal nutcase in Israel, then in Brooklyn. I remember interviewing him, and he used the word quite matter-of-factly: "These Jews don't count; they're Hellenized." So Radosh doesn't know his ass from his elbow. And it showed.
AVC: Do you have any fond memories of any holiday?
CH: A Christmas one? Only when I spent it far from home, and preferably far from anywhere where the thing was celebrated. Which has become more difficult since I've become a father. When I was younger, I used to shake my girlfriend and go just as far away from where we would normally be as possible. And just try to forget the whole thing. Cuba's a good place for that. I went there also for the New Year for 1999-2000, because it was the only place in the world that did not call that the Millennium. Because Castro ruled, for once, quite rightly, that the Millennium is 2000-2001. This is the wrong year. That's actually quite true. So you could get away from all the incessant crap about Y2K. And also Christmas, they don't make a big deal of Christmas down there. I took the family on that occasion, and we had a great time. I think attitudes toward Christmas don't depend just on attitude to religion, but on what kind of family you had, and my family was one that didn't do very well with compulsory celebrations. Whether they were birthdays or any other kind. It was always a little tense.
Any reader would know what I mean. Because occasions where everyone is supposed to be happy tend to have the opposite effect in a family that can get along, but where you wouldn't say everything is absolutely hunky-dory. What I remember is not feeling sad for myself so much, but feeling apprehensive for other family members, that it would be a disappointment to them. On the other hand, it did mark the end of term when I was a boarding-school boy, at the age of 7. So it meant you were about to be let out. When they started singing carols and saying these stupid stories about "the manger" in school, you knew at least it was a signal for liberation of a sort. And there would be lots of food, which there wasn't at school. But no, since I've been old enough to have any say in the matter, I've shied from it, and been relieved not to have to think about it too much. As I've gotten older, I've become absolutely filled with loathing for it. After Halloween, more or less, you can't go into a shop, or across a railway-station concourse, or even an airport, without this crap. And I'm serious: To me, it does feel like living in a one-party state.
AVC: Regardless of whether any of these traditions are based on anything factual, can't you derive any pleasure from the cartoonish celebration of it all: the music, the eggnog, the presents, and the parties?
CH: I like to think all my days are like that, or could be. But I don't have someone permanently telling me, you know, that it's the season to be jolly. And I don't have to hear music that really isn't music at all, like "Jingle Bell Rock," blasted as if one lived in a state that allowed no alternative. Yes, actually, there are constant reminders of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader, all the fucking time. Plus, another thing I don't like: celebrations of virginity. If asked my opinion about virginity, I would say, "I'm opposed to it." I don't think it deserves to be celebrated, at any rate. Or at least, if I'm not opposed, I'm very highly skeptical and critical of it.
AVC: Shouldn't you at least practice virginity up to a certain age?
CH: I think even then, one's looking forward to losing it. At the point you know that you are a virgin, I think you decide, "Well, this is not a condition in which I want to persist very much longer." I think erring always on the side of the ambition to transcend virginity would be good. Remember, in the most religious countries, especially in the most religious Islamic ones, the age of consent is 9. Because of the Prophet's youngest wife, Aisha. It's the pious who have to answer questions about this, just as it's the Roman Church who seems to want to have sex with children, and seems to want grownups to have sex with children, at that. Often of the wrong sex, as well as the wrong age. "No child's behind left," as I say in my book.
AVC: Have any of your children demanded holiday celebrations through the years?
CH: They were all born in Washington D.C., all educated here, so they all went to schools where they meticulously observed Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and other gorgeous multicultural experiences. So I learned about Hanukkah myself, but I learned about the dreidel from my children. I think [my youngest daughter] may have noticed earlier than the others that Daddy doesn't particularly care for any of this stuff. And she proposed a very brilliant compromise one day, when she was quite small—she was a clever girl—that we go and get one of those trees from Rite-Aid that you can screw together, made out of white fiber and plastic. It takes a little while to actually erect it. It's quite fun putting it up. There you are, you've got your tree, and after the 12th night or whatever, you can unscrew it, and you don't have to buy another one next year. So in we went, father and daughter, to Rite-Aid, me covering my ears against the assault of the one-party state totalitarian Christmas music—it's beginning to look a lot like totalitarianism—and bought one. And it's been a fun ritual ever since. In fact, we're going to do it this weekend. I just reminded her, it'll soon be time to trim our tree. Unscrew our tree. Or rather, to screw our tree.
AVC: That could be a scandalous photograph if it ever got out: Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist, at work on a Christmas tree.
CH: It's surprising to me how many of my friends send Christmas cards, or holiday cards, including my atheist and secular friends. They send at least a picture of their families, with something like "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." And with some who live far away or I've otherwise lost touch with, it's nice, because I can see their children growing up. I've never got around to it. I think my daughter might like it if we did that. Maybe we should do it at another time of year, like on my birthday. Celebrate the birthday of the redemptive Christopher Hitchens.
AVC: Do you have a theory about why books like yours and Richard Dawkins' and Sam Harris' sold so well? Is it because we have an evangelical president and are in a religious war, so to speak, and this is some kind of reaction?
CH: You're more or less right, I think. You're right that people are very upset by what the "parties of God" are doing around the world, whether it's trying to destroy Iraqi civil society or bring on the Messiah by stealing other people's property on the West Bank or whatever it might be. And yes, in America, they're fed up with clerical lectures on things like sex or research, and they're very angry. I think the crucial moment was when the President left his fucking farm and his holiday to go and try to mess around in the private life of the [Terry] Schiavo family. I think a lot of people thought, "That's it. You've gone too far." I think that's the whole reason the evangelicals have been on a downward roll since. And then there's the third thing I mentioned, which is that people very much object to being "counted in" when American society is described as the most religious, and the most churchgoing and the most pious. They say, "Wait a minute, you're not talking about me or anyone I know." And it pisses them off that the press and the media do this. So a revenge this group can have is to go help ensure that a book speaks for them.
AVC: Do you find you've actually read the Bible more than a lot of self-described "religious" people?
CH: That was a very common experience on the road, to find that I knew it much better than they did. When I was debating with a Baptist, I would say, "You said you were a professor of Baptist theology, and you say you're an ordained minister. Well then, I feel I'm entitled to ask you, since I've told the audience what I think, and no one is in any doubt of what my convictions are, that you do the same. That you tell me now: Do you believe in John Calvin's view of the elect, and of their predestination? And if you do, I'd like you to say why you do, and if you don't, I'd like you to say on what authority you challenge Calvin." They don't like this question one bit, because they don't want to say in public what they really believe, or what they're supposed to believe, any more than [Mitt] Romney does. That's why he goes all shady. They don't want to have to say it: "Yes, we do think the Garden Of Eden was in Missouri." They don't want to do that! Why do you think that is? What they'd far rather say is, "Well, I once knew a Baptist who was a terrifically good neighbor, who shared all his goods with underprivileged children." They'd far rather talk about that. They don't want to say what they really think, or what verses of the Bible have inspired them, principally the ones about casting the other ones into everlasting fire.
AVC: Mitt Romney's "faith speech."
CH: What a fiasco that was.
AVC: This public discussion about Presidential candidates and their religious beliefs has become more profound than ever. One argument says that we shouldn't be doing it at all, while another might argue that the transparency is helpful in determining how wacky our next President might be.
CH: I don't think Romney is wacky at all, but religion makes intelligent people say and do wacky things, believe and affirm crazy things. Left on his own, Romney would never have said something like the Garden Of Eden was in Missouri, and will be again. A grown man making a spectacle of himself. Left to himself, he wouldn't, I hope, have been a valedictorian at a segregated college, or a college that segregated its sports teams, and never say a word about it. I would like to think he wouldn't. But as a Mormon, it was his job not to ask any questions about that. So the second half of my answer about people taking their good thoughts and good deeds from the Bible: If that's to be accepted, then you have to say that all the wicked things they get from it are the responsibility of religion, too. And my challenge is this: "Can you name me a good action done or a good thing done by a believer that couldn't have been said or done by a non-believer?" I've offered this challenge now in print hundreds of times, and on the air, and on the Web, and in public, debating with quite senior religious people. None of them have come up with an example. Whereas, if I say in front of any audience you can think of, "Can you think of a wicked thing said or an evil thing done by someone because of their religious faith?" Nobody needs you to get to the end of the sentence, they've already thought of an example.
AVC: Recently, there were people in the streets calling for the death of that woman who allowed one of her students to name her teddy bear Mohammed.
CH: Yes, well the rape-and-lynch-women-for-trying-to-be-funny-about-Mohammed community is entirely religious. The suicide-bombing community is not absolutely 100 percent religious, but it is pretty nearly 100 percent religious. The child-abuse and child-sexual-mutilation-of-genitals community is pretty exclusively religious. The "You must tell children they're going to Hell for minor infractions, to terrify them when they're little" community, which I believe to be child abuse, is exclusively religious. The "Bribe people with Heaven" community—that's not moral either—is exclusively religious. One could go on and on. Scientology is a religion. Now, secularism, I'm sorry, just isn't like that. You can be a secularist and a nihilist, or a secularist and a fascist, of course. Or an atheist and a fascist—not likely, most fascists are Catholics, but certainly you could be. You could be an atheist and a sadist, and a psychopath. But I think the connection would be much more contingent. And if you're an atheist, there's another immoral thing you're not doing, which is, you're not submitting to wish-thinking. You're not saying, "Things are true, or I believe things, not because they're true, but because they make me feel better."
AVC: Are you such a rationalist that you drain all mystery out of things?
CH: No, no, I don't. Everyone has the need to experience something larger than their mammalian self, to be just a bit more than a primate. Knowing that we are primates, I think, is a fascinating discovery, and a very interesting and rather cheering one. To find out how much we have in common with other creatures and with other forms of life like vegetation, in our DNA—it's all very interesting, as well as giving us a more modest sense of ourselves. But we can't just be primates all day. We need to fall in love; we have a very strong connection with music, and a feeling for landscape. And in my case—because I'm not a great outdoors person, though I love the sea—for literature and poetry. To each his own. And my choice of reading would be much, much more beautiful than anything that's manifested in any holy text.
AVC: There's the criticism that because you're out there in public with this message, albeit an atheistic one, you're also a kind of missionary. Sam Harris won't even call himself an atheist, the argument being that atheism is just another "ism."
CH: On that, I disagree with him, but I sympathize. He thinks it's pretty pathetic if all you're telling people is what you don't believe. But I think it's important, I think it's a starting point. The thing about religion is that it's the first and the worst. The worst because it's the first. In other words, religion is our first attempt at philosophy, and cosmology, and even in a way at physics. It's what we came up with when we didn't know we lived on a cooling planet, with continental drift, and thus earthquakes and tsunamis and so forth. We didn't know that there were microorganisms, so we didn't know where diseases came from. We didn't know the planet was round, we didn't know we were in a very, very, very small suburb of a very, very, very, very, very big megalopolis, the rest of which has no idea we're even here. However, religion is our point of departure. So the first question any thinking person has to ask for themselves, as well as if anyone else wants to ask, is this: "Do I think I'm here for the same reason as the rocks and the insects and the saline solutions of the oceans and that I'm a product of this? Or do I think that I'm here by a divine design that I can influence by prayer?" In my opinion, you can tell a lot about someone from what their answer to that question is. And everyone has to have an answer to it.
An extraordinary thing is that those who calmly say the first, which is the right answer, the only possible answer, are considered to be an eccentric minority. "That's weird! Gosh, do you mean you really don't believe in any religion at all?" That's thought of, in this country, or at least it's treated by many people, as a really extraordinary position to take. "Yes, I think I'm here because of evolution and natural selection." This is still considered by some people to be an extraordinary thing to say. We have a President who said, "I won't say that's not true, but it just strikes me as so unlikely compared to the idea that Jesus wants me for a sunbeam." By the way, don't even try with this question of, "Aren't people like Sam and I missionaries and fundamentalists?" It's pathetic. All you're doing is recycling a very sad bit of last-ditch propaganda from the other side. No, we don't go around to other people's houses. Yes, we do accept challenges from the faithful, and it's high time they started accepting some of ours.
For example, I was in Seattle; a very nice show had me on. It was one of the few places I couldn't find anyone to debate me. I had the whole town hall, a thousand people to myself. So a conservative, religious broadcaster, I think he was the local Fox host, said, "You can come on my show, because I think it's really bad that you can't find a debater here," so good for him, I thought. And I went on his show and I chatted on, and I said what I thought, what I've told you, that half the time when you meet people who say they are churchgoing Christians, they don't know what they're supposed to believe, they don't believe all of it, they have a lot of doubt, and they go to church largely for social reasons. I told him it's been a really long time since I've met a Catholic who really will say, "Yes, I believe in the virgin birth." And the guy said, "Well, hold it right there. I very much do believe in the virgin birth. I absolutely do believe in it." And I said, "No, I don't think you do. Nice try, but I don't think you really do believe in it. I think you feel you ought to, but you don't, if you examine yourself." And he said, "You're wrong. I absolutely believe in the Immaculate Conception of Jesus Christ." And I said to him, "Do you not know that the virgin birth is a different thing from the Immaculate Conception?" And he said, "It is?" And I said, "Yes, the Immaculate Conception is of the Virgin Mary herself."
Jesus was not immaculately conceived; he is the product of a virgin being got with child by the Holy Spirit. It was decided by the Roman church in the 19th century that there had to be a ruling on what happened to Mary. And since the wages of sin is death, since she's known to have died, she had to be assumed into Heaven. That's the doctrine of assumption. She couldn't die, nor was she elevated into Heaven like Jesus, but she was assumed into Heaven. And because she was sinless, her own conception, though not of a virgin, was to be described as immaculate. It's completely different from the virgin birth. This guy has gone through his entire life as a devout Catholic, believing that every time he said he was in favor of the virgin birth, or believed in it, he was believing in the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Ludicrous position. Because if you have a virgin for a mother, it doesn't prove anything about your doctrines. You could be born of a virgin and be a satanic imp, easily. Or a speaker of bullshit. You could be resurrected and be a speaker of bullshit or a satanic imp. None of these things prove anything. There could be an afterlife and no God; there could be a God and no afterlife. This is all cobbled together, obviously, by humans. One definite way to prove that we are half a chromosome away from being chimpanzees is to look at our religious practices.
AVC: On the one hand, you must be encouraged by the sales of your book, that there's a growing rational debate about these things. On the other, The Secret has sold a bazillion more copies.
CH: Look, the whole point about religious faith, in my opinion, is that it's not possible to imagine us ever living without it, or eradicating credulity. We are a credulous species. We're programmed to look for patterns, which is a good thing, because it's enabled all our progress and all our innovation. The problem is that people will take a junk pattern over no pattern at all. Just as they'll prefer a conspiracy theory to having no opinion. And religion is a huge help in doing that. Like astrology: "Well now, come to think of it, the movements of those heavenly bodies are just out there to determine what I'm supposed to do on Friday. How simple it all now seems. How nice that is, by the way, that this vast business should be set in motion just to advise me on my career moves."
But it makes sense to individuals, because they have a high opinion of themselves. Religion also flatters our solipsism, and our selfishness, and our self-centeredness, while pretending to teach us to be modest. That's the joke of it. By pretending to say, "Be modest and humble," it promotes the most fantastic arrogance and self-centeredness and conceit. I find that quite amusing. It also trades on the fear of death. And that is a pretty good selling point. I'm not afraid of death myself, because I'm not gonna know I'm dead. I'm awed a bit by the idea, but I'm perfectly reconciled to it. Certainly I am, as everyone is, reconciled to everyone else's death but their own. They think an exception can be made in their own case. And religion encourages them to believe something as absurd as that. You can sit in the airport and watch everyone go by, and think, "Yes, if they make the right noises, they'll get eternal life." Isn't that a nice idea? No, they don't want it for them, they want it for themselves. So religion is this corrupt racket, but it can't fail because there will be infinite demand for that. Religion will die out when we stop worrying about death. I think we'll give it a fair lease. In the meantime, crap books like the one you just mentioned are always a success, as are the Left Behind series, and the book of Leviticus, and the Koran, and other pieces of man-made idiocy.
AVC: With your hatred of the holidays, are we allowed to wish you a happy holiday?
CH: I say "Merry Christmas." Do you know Tom Lehrer? He's still teaching mathematics at one of the California universities. He was at Harvard in the '60s, and quite a famous scientist. But he did a sideline in satirical songs. Long after you've forgotten talking to me about anything else, you will remember me as the person who told you to look up Tom Lehrer. He's of my age, he was a great satirical singer, and there's one he did for Christmas. Actually, I can still more or less recite it:
Christmas time is here, by golly
Disapproval would be folly
Deck the halls with hunks of holly
Fill the cup and don't say when.
Kill the turkeys, ducks, and chickens
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens
Even though the prospect sickens
Brother, here we go again…
That's my "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." That's my carol. I say "Merry Christmas" to people I don't know, or to people I know are Christians. I say "Happy Hanukkah" to people I know to be or suspect to be Jewish. And I don't say "Happy Kwanzaa," because I think African-Americans get enough insults all year round. That was invented by a fraud almost as great as [Mormonism founder] Joseph Smith. Maulana Karenga, formerly Ron Karenga. A craphound from the Bay Area, used to be an FBI informer on the Black Panthers. Scumbag. And I actually don't know anyone who does celebrate Kwanzaa. That's just sad and awful that that's allowed to happen.