In defense of Hitchens

December 16, 2013 • 6:47 am

Christopher Hitchens died two years ago yesterday—has it been so long?—and yet journalists continue to attack him. To me that’s a measure of his influence, and I see the attacks as motivated by two factors: resentment of the success of New Atheism, and the laziness of journalists, who can, by attacking strident and militant atheists (even if they’re dead) draw traffic.

One of the prime attack dogs in the War on Atheism has been Salon, which has published a number of pieces attacking Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other prominent atheists. About a week ago I discussed Salon‘s latest attack on Hitchens, “What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything,” by Sean McElwee.

Well, I was amazed to see that, in Saturday’s Salon, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Tayler also wrote a withering broadside against McElwee’s piece and a defense of Hitchens: “The real new atheism: rejecting religion for a just world.” I was pleased to see that we went after many of McElwee’s same points, but Tayler does a much better job I.

He first dismantles McElwee’s stupid claim that Hitchens thought religion was responsible for all humanity’s ills (McElwee discredited himself at the outset with that bit of logic), and notes that, contra McElwee, Hitchens did not advocate the second Iraq war because he thought it would be the final overthrow of religion. (Tayler, by the way, thinks that Hitchens was mistaken.)

No, this was not how Hitchens viewed the second Iraq war. He advocated invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam, who was, he contended, guilty of crimes against humanity, and he (mistakenly) assumed a stable democracy would result from the dictator’s ouster.

Hitchens understood the secular nature of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, which made all the more puzzling and problematic his stubborn insistence that Saddam was colluding with Al Qaeda. But McElwee then asserts that “the force of rationality and civilization was led by a cabal of religious extremists” – in the Bush administration — which “was of no concern for Hitchens.” George W. Bush was a convert to Evangelical Christianity, which does not necessarily make him a “religious extremist,” and the (mixed) faiths of the Iraq War’s other architects (Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, et al.) did not fuel their zeal for deposing Saddam.

McElwee proceeds to mischaracterize Hitchens’ post-9/11 worldview as a “war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.” How McElwee can expect us to believe this of Hitchens, who authored a book (“The Missionary Position”) denouncing Mother Theresa as a fraud and relentlessly attacked Christianity, baffles me, as does McElwee’s blindness to his own blunder. Is Hitchens now, according to him, pro-Christian?

Tayler then rebuts McElwee’s equally dubious claim that Muslim jihad has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, but is political: a reaction to colonialism:

Stripping jihad of its religious grounds invites nothing but confusion. Jihad in Arabic means “struggle,” but, with respect to Islam, denotes “a struggle in the name of faith,” which includes holy war against infidels waged as a matter of religious duty.  Such jihad is, ipso facto, religious.

And it’s really refreshing to read a critique of those who soft-pedal religion:

McElwee then tendentiously defines religion so as to paper over its often decisive role in precipitating conflicts. Though he allows that it might “motivate acts of social justice and injustice,” “[r]eligion is both a personal search for truth as well as a communal attempt to discern where we fit in the order of things.” Religion first and foremost consists of unsubstantiated, dogmatically advanced explanations for the cosmos and our place in it, with resulting universally applicable rules of conduct. A good many of these rules – especially those regarding women’s behavior and their (subservient) status vis-à-vis men, and prescriptions for less-than-merciful treatment of gays – are repugnant, retrograde, and arbitrary, based on “sacred texts” espousing “revealed truths” dating back to what the British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell justly called the “savage ages.” (Islam by no means has a monopoly on such rules – check Leviticus for its catalogue of “crimes”: working on the Sabbath, cursing one’s parents, being the victim of rape – that merit the death penalty.) Just how such “holy” compendia of ahistorical, often macabre fables are supposed to help anyone in a “personal search for truth” mystifies me.

Without their truth claims, most religions lose force as a social institution, and I don’t understand why believers (McElwee is a Christian) refuse to see that. If McElwee absolutely knew that Jesus was not divine and was not resurrected, would he still be a Christian? Without that, you not only lose motivation to adhere to the faith, but your “acts of social justice” will no longer be based on your perceived interpretation of God’s will and the words of Jesus. Or, if you don’t believe the tenets of your faith, and do good from secular motivations, you can’t really call yourself a Christian. It’s like calling yourself a Republican when you embrace the Democratic platform and always vote for Democrats. This is why it’s crucial to ask Christians, for instance, if they really believe in the Resurrection, Heaven, Hell, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and the fact that the Bible is anything more than a man-made text.  If they don’t, they’re just secular humanists using fancy language. And that is why liberal Christians always waffle when asked those questions. In their hearts they do believe, for they have a sneaking suspicion that there’s an afterlife, but are embarrassed to admit publicly that they believe in such foolish superstitions.

But I digress.  Tayler attacks McElwee’s claim that atheists should lay off religion because it’s best criticized from the inside, that we need a Gouldian truce between science and religion, and so on.  I’ll leave you to read the piece for yourself, and you should, for Tayler’s language is strong and uncompromising, much like that of Hitchens’s himself.

And there’s a nice ending:

The sooner we accord priests, rabbis and imams the same respect we owe fabulists and self-help gurus, the faster we will progress toward a more just, more humane future. Enlightenment must be our goal, and that was what Hitchens advocated above all.

On second thought, I think Tayler went a bit too far here. In truth, many self-help gurus—like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil—are accorded enormous respect in our society, often far more respect than clerics. What Tayler should have said is that we need to accord priests, rabbis, and imams the same respect we owe believers in UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, and Scientology.

Tayler really hasn’t crossed my radar screen, but I like the way he writes and his refusal to coddle the faithful.

54 thoughts on “In defense of Hitchens

  1. This actually isn’t new for Salon. It seems like they’ll post a critical piece about Hitchens, and one defending him, in alternating turns every two weeks or so. It’s been going on for months.

    They’ve been the #1 profiteers from his death, because of course, all of these articles are massive clickbait, and typically have several hundred comments.

    They do the same thing with Dawkins and Harris, though much more infrequently.

  2. I liked this part and this sentence would’ve been the best one to end on:

    Atheists who wobble in defense of nonbelief would do well to recall 9/11, Baruch Goldstein’s Hebron massacre of Palestinians, the Salem witch trials and violence meted out in the name of religion to “unchaste” women throughout the ages. This is, of course, an incomplete list of atrocities motivated by religion.

    I intend to remember it and use it when questioned about why I think religion is bad.

  3. I liked everything Tayler said except the bit papering over Bush’s religious beliefs and their possible role in his cheerleading for the Iraq war. I remember religious language playing a quite prominent role in Bush’s speeches at the time.

    There was no real need for Tayler to deny this, either; it is irrelevant to a defense of Hitchens. Hitchens, a rational person, would surely think about the merits of a position independently of whether the person proposing it has religious as well as secular motivations. Tayler should have simply mentioned that; it would have been a stronger defense of Hitchens than trying to deny Bush’s religious motivations.

    1. At the time I lived in a city full of fundamentalists. They supported any talk of invading Iraq and loved Bush’s religious injections. I don’t think the invasion would have been supported if the christians didn’t believe that it was a revelation of their god’s end times.

      Incidentally, their talk of end times is much less frequent now and many of them criticize Bush for the costly invasion. Their god seems to have just vanished from the show.

  4. Hitchens’ support for the invasion of Iraq was unfortunate, and if he really thought that a stable democracy would result, surprisingly naive too.

    I remember in summer 2002 I was telling anyone who would listen that the US government had already decided to invade, that the occupation would be heavy-handed and that this would provoke a nationalist insurrection.

    (I’m not trying to claim massive prescience, just pointing out that what actually happened wasn’t remotely surprising to very large numbers of people).

    1. Hitchens surely couldn’t have expected that the aftermath of the collapse of the Baathists would be handled so ham-fistedly by the Bushiites.

      1. Plenty of people did, and said so months before the invasion began.

        Hitchens cannot have been unaware of such concerns, but he seems to have ignored them.

        That he supported a war based on false evidence, and handled so ineptly was not to his credit.

        1. I don’t this this is fair to Hitchens’ perspective.

          He was close friends with many Kurds who had been particular victims of Baathist rule. It was his desire for their freedom that led him to his position. He fell into the “enemy of my enemy” trap and allowed himself to support the Bushies as a consequence.

          He came to regret his support for the Bushies but not his support for the Kurds and not his opposition to the Baathists.

          1. How is not fair ?

            Iraq is not demonstrably a safer place today, which makes the war a failure if that was the aim.

            1. It is unfair because it ignores his main motives for his position.

              (note: I disagreed with Hitchens, too. But because I think he allowed himself to be fooled into ignoring the nature of his American political allies. His basic motives, however, I think were ethically sound.)

              1. How can they have been ethically sound ?

                If the Kurds have benefited as the result of the war, it is at the expense of the Iraqis. That does not seem very ethical to me.

                That he supported Bush means he cannot be excused because he justified the war on different grounds. Bush justified on false evidence. Evidence I might add it now seems was know to be false at the time. Further, he supported a war he had good reason to believe would be handled ineptly. That is not ethical.

              2. Bush justified the war on false evidence. Hitchens justified it because he saw war as the legitimate attempt of his Kurdish friends to gain independence from people who had brutally suppressed the Kurds.

                If you can’t see the difference between these two motives there is little I can say that will convince you.

                (note: this is not an excuse for his credulity w/r/t the Bush administration’s behavior.)

              3. You cannot seperate out Hitchins personal reasons for justifying the war from his support for Bush, and Bush’s justification for the war.

                He had the option of saying he supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, but was not supporting Bush’s plan for war. He did not do that. He coat-tailed on the back of Bush, and must accept the responsibility for doing so.

                If you advocate war then you have a duty to advocate it is carried out properly. Hitchins failed to that. He ignored the plentiful evidence before the invasion that whilst the military action would succeed in removing Saddam, there was a woeful lack of preparation for the the post-war situation. Iraqis are still dying as a result of that lack of planning.

                There is a case to made that it would have been ethical to take action to protect the Kurds, but not at any cost. Hitchins’ support of the Kurds has come at the cost of Iraqi lives. Lives that were not his to trade.

              4. “You cannot seperate out Hitchins personal reasons for justifying the war from his support for Bush, and Bush’s justification for the war.”

                Of course I can. I did. You’re the one who is having trouble distinguishing things.

                Yes, you don’t like his position. I didn’t either. But one of us is incapable of recognizing any subtly as to the way real people think about things in the real world.

              5. Well of course you did, but you are wrong to do so. I understand your argument. I just do not accept it. And please cut out the rudeness, if only because it suggests you realise you are losing the argument.

              6. Rudeness was not intended, so don’t create any.

                I do not believe I’m losing an argument. I’m simply pointing out that describing Hitchens’ position without including what was his main motive was is a disservice to him.

              7. “Rudeness was not intended, so don’t create any.”

                Don’t insult my intelligence please, it demeans you.

                “I do not believe I’m losing an argument. I’m simply pointing out that describing Hitchens’ position without including what was his main motive was is a disservice to him.”

                What is a disservive to Hitchins is to try and pretend he was without serious moral failings, not least of which was his support for the Iraq War.

              8. “pretend he was without serious moral failings”

                Yes, that would be a disservice. And I invite you to show where I or anyone else on this page has done that.

              9. I suggest you stop being an apologist for a supported of an illegal war.

                I also suggest you address your rudeness and your subsequent lack of honesty.

              10. Sorry Jerry, but he claimed he was not being rude.

                That was untrue. If you want to kick me out because I called out out on that, feel free. But I will NOT apologise to someone who was rude, and then lied about it. Quite frankly, I am pretty disgusted you would suggest I should.

              11. I’m not kicking anybody out, especially long-time commenters, for this. But I don’t like this squabbling, and really, saying that someone is “dishonest” because you say he’s rude and he doesn’t think so, is stretching the definition of “dishonesty.” I just want this squabbling to stop.

                My own view is that Hitchens made a mistake in judgment, but it was because of his friendship for the Kurds, and it did not brand him as a deeply immoral person. He was wrong on that and right on so many other important issues that I really don’t understand why people home in on Iraq as if it defines the man completely.

                Anyway, let let this be the last comment.

        2. Worse than his cheerleading and denunciation of anyone who was skeptical during the run-up to the war (which was really disappointing for a whole bunch of reasons) was the fact that even after things went totally down the toilet in Iraq and every pre-war justification was proven wrong, Hitchens still refused to offer any mea culpa and in some interviews/debates even doubled down on his pre-war sentiments. Nobody is right about everything, many of us were hoodwinked by the Bush administration, and it’s hard for anyone to admit when they were wrong. But I think the ability to compare predictions to outcomes against real-world results in future accountings and evaluation is a pretty important part of skepticism. I still love alot of Hitchens work and agree with most things he said regarding religion, but I do think it’s entirely fair to hold his denialism with regards to Iraq against him in general. His failure to listen to experts on WMDs, potential civil war etc., willingness to insult anyone who did listen to the experts, and refusal to face the truth and acknowledge the things he got wrong is the kind of denialism that is on the same level as Global Warming Skeptics, Anti-vaxxers and ID/Creationists, imo. I expect more from journalists and especially skeptics. Anyways, this is my long-winded way of explaining why people often bring up Iraq even when the Hitchens topic is something else. That said I still usually love most of his atheism work and am sad the he’s no longer around.

          1. In fairness I think Hitchins did express regret for the inept handling of post-war Iraq.

            But given he was aware many people with experience of reconstructing a country after a regime change had made it clear the US plans were seriously flawed it is a regret that does not mean much. Even the US State Department was not happy with the plans.

    2. Hitchens was personal friends with a lot of progressive Iraqi exiles who assured him that the country was ready for democracy if Sadam could be disposed of. They were all wrong of course, but he was too close to the trees to see the forest.

  5. This is from McElwee’s piece:

    But after 9/11, Hitchens stopped seeing the world in terms of geopolitics but rather saw it, like the Neocons in the Bush administration, as a war between the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East.

    You can almost sense the level of constraint required for him not to write that he thinks Hitchens became Islamophobic.

  6. I’m not sure if it’s fair to mention Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil in the same breath (sentence). True, I’m only familiar with Weil when it comes to his research on psychoactive drugs, and I even quote Weil (from a New Yorker piece about coca) in my book, “Letter to a Prohibitionist”. But in general terms, is it fair to put Weil alongside Chopra? I don’t think so. Chopra is a crackpot. Weil is not (“From Chocolate to Morphine” was also helpful in my research).

    1. Skepdoc Harriet Hall has frequently made the point that Andrew Weil is dangerous because he flip flops back and forth from perfectly reasonable, scientific advice and off-the-wall medical woo, never distinguishing between them. Thus the unwary or unaware reader cannot be sure where the one stops and the other begins. Weil is also on record with a very anti-scientific underlying philosophy regarding the virtue of “stoned thinking” in discovering truths.

      Keep in mind that Chopra is only a crackpot when it comes to his science. Much of his advice on living well is more or less unremarkable and more or less reasonable. You could cherry pick many things from his self-help books and actually find yourself helped.

      From what I can tell that’s generally the case with popular crackpots. They’re only cracked on one side — or when you get up close. They became popular at least partly for reasons which are at least partly valid and then use that to drag along the rest of it.

      1. FWIW, I have heard Weil, with what struck me as total honesty, say that it is not his role to conduct research on the efficacy of what he advocates, because he is a medical practitioner and not a scientist.

        Ironically, I have yet to hear a better critique than what those words offered of the indulgent anecdotalism with which so much normal medical practice proceeds.

        1. As I say, I’m only familiar with Weil when it comes to his work on psychoactive drugs (and have no quarrel with him on what he says on this subject). But thanks again for this heads up.

  7. On second thought, I think Tayler went a bit too far here. In truth, many self-help gurus—like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil—are accorded enormous respect in our society, often far more respect than clerics. What Tayler should have said is that we need to accord priests, rabbis, and imams the same respect we owe believers in UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, and Scientology.


    But on second thought, I think Jerry went a bit too far here. In truth, many believers in UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, and Scientology are accorded far too much respect in our society — as skeptic groups which go after such beliefs will readily attest. And the same dreary accusations of closed-minded intolerance follow along, contrasted of course with the open-minded pioneer spirit of the believer.

    Seriously, it’s hard to find examples of nonsense which it’s culturally acceptable to mock in order to make the point that one can (or ought to) do so for similar nonsense. If nothing else the idea that an incredibly unlikely belief is “heart-felt” or a matter of “faith” is supposed to protect it from social battering. This is I think partly the result of the idea that having faith is virtue which deserves deference and partly the result of faith itself successfully confusing the belief with the believer.

    1. Good point.

      Also, Tayler writes quite precisely:

      …we accord priests, rabbis and imams the same respect we owe fabulists and self-help gurus…

      [my emphasis]

      So, what respect do we owe them?
      Qua factual merits, none.
      Then none shall be accorded.

      Tayler is on target, even though he prefers the rapier to the blunderbuss.

  8. I remember a Hitchens paragraph, possibly in the posthumous collection (details anyone?) of agonised regret for the outcome of the Iraq war; though it was not clear whether this referred to the entire decision to invade, or to the gibbering incompetence with which that decision was implemented.

    1. There’s a passage in Hitch 22 (pp. 334-5) that sounds like that. He’s lamenting the fact that he didn’t ask Wolfowitz some questions about basic planning, as he’d assumed such things must have been planned for.

      I feel stupid and ashamed to
      this day that I didn’t ask the sort of question that Commander
      Hitchens would have insisted upon before even taking a ship into
      convoy. As Peter Galbraith was later to say so ruefully to me,
      surveying the terrifying damage done by unchecked looting, and the
      misery that this in turn inflicted on Iraqi society: “You never get a
      second chance to make a good first impression.” This was to say the
      least of it: I probably now know more about the impeachable
      incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who
      would have left Iraq in the hands of Saddam. Some of it was almost
      quixotically American—the huge gleaming generator brought by
      truck across Jordan to Baghdad proved to be too digital and
      streamlined to be plugged into the Iraqi “grid,” and we might have
      done better to buy some clapped-out equipment from Belarus or
      Ukraine. But some of the failures were infinitely more culpable than
      that and, even though they don’t alter the case against Ba’athism,
      have permanently disfigured the record of those of us who made that

  9. “Atheists’ ranks are swelling”

    He seems to think that the “none’s” fall into this category, and most do not. Didn’t the last poll by somebody still show admitted atheists around 6%?

    1. Those were two separate sentences in the article so he isn’t putting the nones & atheists in the same category:

      According to a Pew poll conducted in 2012, a record number of young Americans – a quarter of those between the ages of 18 and 29 — see themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. Atheists’ ranks are swelling, and believers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their faith.

      1) There are a growing number of “nones”.
      2) There is in increase in the number of atheists.

      1. My point is that the swelling ranks of atheists seems unsubstantiated, which is why I suspect he’s including the nones in that total.

        1. Well yes, it’s a bit nebulous – does he mean according to the same data the atheist ranks are swelling (which if so he would have said so differently) or is it his speculation that the ranks are swelling. It would have been nice if he had used data to support the latter.

  10. Journalists, in particular, who dislike Hitchens, generally wish they had his intellect. It is their hidden jealousy that enrages them.

  11. I have had intermittent quarrels with Hitchens, but that’s not the same as a systemic one. I loved his takedowns of Malcolm Muggeridge, thought he treated Sydney Blumenthal horribly, loved his literary criticism, thought he horribly overgeneralized abiut Buddhism, he made me laugh (he was a great connesseur of irreverent limericks), was bewildered at why he treated specific opponents more graciously than others, and thought he faced his impending death with extraordinary grace, ciyrage, and dignity.

    It’s time to put to rest sweeping generalizations about atheists. Not all literally believe every word of John Lennon’s Imagine. (And re a post a few days ago, Dawkins does believe ID is stupid, but he doesn’t think all theists are stupid.)

  12. May I toot my horn about Hitchens? “You may.” Thanks.

    I once “scolded” Hitch in public. This was around the time “The Missionary Position” was published. I arrived at the New School for a lecture/talk but was told that it was “sold out” (free seating). I turned and walked away and saw Hitchens milling about on the sidewalk near the entrance. I walked up to him and said, “If you had booked a larger hall I might have been able to get in.” He told me not to worry about it and to hang with him and his gang — and then I went in with him a few minutes later. Nice guy.

    A better story. When the paperback edition of “god is Not Great” was published I was pleased to see a terrific essay from Vanity Fair used as an Afterword. Now, in that essay Hitchens owned up to a mistake, “slander” as he called it, about Orthodox Jews having sex with a hole in a sheet. Hitchens said in the essay that it would be corrected for future editions — meaning, of course, the paperback edition.

    So I’m reading the paperback and, lo and behold, the error is still in the book! I emailed Hitchens, who got back to me to say that I had “spoiled his day” and that he didn’t understand how the error was there when it didn’t appear in the Canadian edition of the book that had been published a few weeks earlier. We figured that the compositor at Twelve or someone there in the chain of command for sending the pages to press for the American edition somehow screwed up. So Hitchens got on it, and then got back to me to say that I would receive a gratis copy of the corrected edition. Nice guy. (But I hope I didn’t get anyone fired at Twelve!)

    1. Sounds like he was very gracious and humble. What a stark contrast to the way his detractors would portray him.

  13. I hadn’t taken time to read McElwee’s piece. Tayler is correct, the attribution of “saw it … as … the good Christian West and the evil Muslim Middle East” jars.

    But this jars too:

    “Science, the study of the natural world, and religion, the inquiry into the meaning of life (or metaphysics, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any theologian or scientist who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.”

    Since religious claims are tantamount to homeopathy, this reads as:

    “Medicine, the study of the healing processes, and homeopathy, the inquiry into the meaning of dilution (or metachemistry, more broadly) constitute non-overlapping magisteria. Neither can invalidate the theories of the other, if such theories are properly within their realm. Any homeopath or doctor who steps out of their realm to speculate upon the other is free to do so, but must do so with an adequate understanding of the other’s realm.”

    This doesn’t pass the smell test, obviously. Religion, and homeopathy, can and must be analyzed on their merits, not their assumed harmlessness.

  14. Amazing how many haters are out there for Hitch. The guy was amazing.

    As for his support for Iraq Invasion, I think he holds the moral high ground! We should argue to invade and depose all of these crazy dictators! In a perfect world, the United nations would invade and liberate Zimbabwe, Syria, North Korea etc… Instead we have a UN that puts Zim, Libya, Quatar, Uganda on the the Human Rights Counsel!!!!The current strategy does not appear to be working for many of these countries and the human suffering is immense.

    I wish I could recall the essay were he took apart Paul Bremer. He definitely did not support the way the war was conducted and definitely did not make excuses for Torture, Gitmo, abu graib etc.

    You cant say that for most ‘intellectuals’ on the right (and some on the left…)at the height of US incompetence in Iraq. A time when many where making excuses for American incompetence, sadism and murder.

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