Death hath wrought a pernicious dent in the erudite and intellectual world; Hitchens will not be one to be soon forgotten, nor ever replaced (but emulDeath hath wrought a pernicious dent in the erudite and intellectual world; Hitchens will not be one to be soon forgotten, nor ever replaced (but emulated, definitely). Let me stop you before you roll your eyes. Yes, I am providing my belated, unasked-for, and pedantic tribute to the late Hitch, but this is as appropriate of a forum as any to do so, right? Indeed, I read this magnificent little collection of letters of advice written to no one in particular (but everyone) in modest and solemn remembrance.
I listen to Hitchens’ lectures and debates as if they were my favorite records. Instead of singing along to the Bad Romances and the Mmmbopies, or whatever you kids are listening to nowadays, I am obdurately testifying along:
“…what matters most… the pursuit of liberty, freedom. And that these things are incompatible, completely incompatible, with the worship of an unalterable celestial dictator; someone who can watch you while you sleep and convict you of thought crime, and whose rule cannot be challenged.”
“It’s not moral to lie to children. It’s not moral to lie to ignorant, uneducated people and tell them that if they only believe nonsense, they can be saved.”
“Bear in mind that you are only dust, as the Christian book says, or you are only fashioned from a clot of blood, as the Quran says; bear in mind that you were convicted and found guilty, before you were conceived, of crimes in which you couldn’t possibly have been involved, and you have all the burden of proof in your own defense, and you’ve been found guilty. But… to make up for that rather horrible indictment, you can be reassured that the entire cosmos is designed with you in mind. False consolation. And that he has a plan for you, on the condition that you agree to be a serf. Forever.“
I imitate these and many other lines in my best terrible British accent with as much seemingly effortless acumen as I can muster for an audience of my two dogs (both of whom are now atheists and contrarians as well). However, this is not strictly an anti-religious polemic like his acerbic, if slightly inferior god is Not Great, but a multifaceted deconstruction of conventional wisdom and reverence. There are fringe views that deserve to be marginalized, and then there are dissenting views which need to be heeded, or at least considered. Nothing Hitchens says can be shrugged off, and if one tries, they will end up looking even dumber than they did when they became recipients of his critical wit in the first place. Happily, the intellectual public mostly embraced this public intellectual, and realized his worth in a miscellany of areas. As much as I love his railings against religion (around which most of his debates are centered), it is too bad that some people think that was the sole domain of his brilliance (or according to his detractors, his calumny/misguidedness). His reflections on literature (specific pieces, or in general), history, travels, and encounters, are absolute treasures. One should envy the experiences of this man; well, most experiences.
Among the things to admire in him is his lack of hypocrisy. One cannot suggest that he ‘dishes it out but can’t take it’. As he states in the preface, “I attack and criticize people myself; I have no right to expect lenience in return.” He prepares for, and anticipates attacks on himself; and throughout his career (and life), he has addressed them head-on. The day of his death, I heard more about his being known for his assailment of Mother Teresa than anything else in his distinguished career from the major cable news networks. Luckily, the likes of Joe Scarborough and Sean Hannity don’t get to determine the legacy of this man; at least not for anyone who knew him, or followed his work.
Format: Mr. X, the student, (i.e. us), is allowed the privilege of absorbing all the knowledge and nuance that only Hitch could articulate to this effect. How happy I am that these letters were not exclusive to his students (but how sad am I that I was not among them). Several brief correspondences with a hypothetical, representative student, whose responses are assumed, or left out, advise on what it is to be a contrarian. It is not a matter of being the stand-out dissenter, but the nuanced thinker. (At least that’s what I gathered). Don’t accept anything because someone tells you it is so. Take advantage of your faculties and seek the truth out for yourself.
The Advice (In Conjunction With My Own): Consensus isn’t always trustworthy. Appealing to experts has its values, I feel, and I don’t think Hitchens disagrees with that insofar as dispassionate research reveals the evidence, but in matters of, say, policy, and more pertinent to this third letter, idolatry, the arguments from authority and consensus are not sufficient (nor are they particularly helpful). Disputations are an essential part of crawling toward truth, but let us not get caught up in tautology. It does no good to say either something is true or it is not true. Both of those possibilities are true, and each party in a disagreement can infer as much. Not everything is up for debate, however, as observational evidence cannot be reasonably misconstrued as falsehood, unless we disagree on what observation and evidence are. And around we go.
More to the point at hand is the inauspicious concept of Nirvana; sheer nothingness, or mindless ‘bliss’, which renders discovery and thought useless, or at the very least unnecessary. We shouldn’t, I don’t think, desire suspension, or termination of the intellect, regardless of the ease it may bring us. “And the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable from the angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair”. This shouldn’t come off as an anti-existential way of thinking, I don’t think. Moss can be existential in practice. Rocks may very well be experiencing Nirvana. I’ll keep my intellect as long as I am able to (in the service of existential thought, of course). Thinking may cause discomfort, or unease, even unhappiness but that is no excuse to eschew it in favor of becoming a breathing inanimate object.
The evasion of verbal conflict is a silly thing. I thought trying to solve problems with words was a good thing, but now even that makes the tender-hearted cry and plead for peace and compromise. My own bit of advice would be: do not ever agree to disagree. Always state your case if you have one and if you are serious about it. When one engages in combative dialogue (I say combative because vehemence in debate is no vice either) it is important to know exactly whom with one is engaging. Go find a sparring partner. Go on! Play devil’s advocate if you’d like, or just rant and rave with a like-minded cohort.
Wasn’t that refreshing? If not, tell me why I am wrong in thinking that argumentation is a common good.
Nuance or Obfuscation? Some Improvised Examples: -He burned a Quran, what did he expect? He knew there would be violent reaction and he did it anyway. This implicates him in the subsequent riots and murders. He should be more sensitive and show more respect to the sacredness of people’s beliefs.
-I’m not anti-gay, I’m pro-family.
-Providing abortion services is akin to murder. I sympathize with victims of rape, but we shouldn’t punish an innocent unborn child for the actions of their father (said actions being conception of the child through non-consensual intercourse). We already have one victim (of rape). Let’s not add another victim (of in utero murder).
When such stances are being taken, it may be an apt time to whip out Occam’s Razor and do some slicing-and-dicing in the name of common sense. Force them to say what they really mean, and deflate false gradations with the art of “simple… elementary principles”.
Out of Context and Incorrect Citation: Like Karl Marx’s famous Religion is the opium of the people statement (often assumed to have appeared in his Communist Manifesto, when it really appears in A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right), Hitchens’ Antitheism remarks are very poorly understood and unjustly used to discredit him as a credible critic of religion. The word antitheism smacks of a shaking-ones-fist-at-the-sky quality and Hitchens’ detractors are quick to point this out. The problem is that, much different than rebellion for its own sake, Hitchens backs it all up with historical (and anecdotal) proof. Seek out and criticize each example on its own terms, sure, but don’t bring up the old dross of ‘he is just angry at God…’ Admittedly, you’d think a statement like ‘I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches , and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful’ to be contained in a more histrionically titled book, like ‘god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, but, like those who would talk about Marx’s opium quote as if it were some kind of Communist slogan, we can confront those who talk about Hitchens’ antitheist quote as if it were a way to ride on the coattails of other recent popular critics of religion, because it was written years before, and his later book on the subject was an extrapolation of this point (in that respect, I must say, it is not much like Marx’s quote).
Self-criticism: I am told that my neutral face is a pissed-off face. I often appear uninterested (often enough, I am), in what other people are saying to me, or I am insufferable and condescending. So, like Hitchens, whose face apparently forms an unintended sneer, I don’t fit the old description of a gentleman: one who is never rude except on purpose. So be it. But when I am talking, especially to someone who may very well know more than me about any given subject, I go over each sentence that may escape my lips, in my head (this also depends on my blood-alcohol level). I have been proven wrong before, and I have changed my mind about things of which I have not been proven wrong. There is no shame in this, and nobody needs me to reassure them of that. What is shameful though, is holding a minority viewpoint and conceding to your detractors on that basis. In this area, I am not as confident as the man who wrote “Have I ever thought I might be wrong? Yes, sometimes and briefly”, but I hope I am wrong in thinking I will never be.
Anticipated, if Unlikely, Outside Criticism: “This isn’t a review. You quote Hitchens too much. If I wanted to read Hitchens quotes, I’d buy a book of Hitchens’ quotes”, to which I respond, as Hitchens says, “You… noticed that I make liberal use of extracts and quotations, not just to show off my reading but also to enlighten my text and make use of those who can express my thoughts better than I am able to.”
Bonus For Those Who Have Made it This Far: Is it not time (in fact, well past time) to dispel of any notions of race or ethnicity between humans? The discoveries of Darwin, Crick, and many successors since, have allowed, nay, required, us to view every human as a member of only one giant race. Race is the most arbitrary way of dividing humans that is still in such common practice. Perhaps all the hip, young people are even past the need to rationalize racism away; if so, bring it up to your brother-in-law in Arkansas, to shut him up. I will not be able to say this any better so, again, in his own words:
“The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.”
Let this be a voice in the back of your head whenever you, or someone else, describes someone in terms of ‘racial identity’, or when ‘identity politics’ is brought up.
I Now Leave You With This:
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect them to live for you.”
I am not sure if I would ever wholly embrace any ‘words to live by’, but if I did, the words above wouldn’t be a poor choice. I am saddened only in that there can be no more contributions to the world from the pen of the man who wrote them. Methinks it is time to pour myself some Johnnie Walker Black (neat) in his dignified honor (not to be construed as worship).
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I cannot overstate how insightful, useful and dare I say, necessary ‘Freethinkers’ truly is. Not only doesI cannot recommend this book highly enough. I cannot overstate how insightful, useful and dare I say, necessary ‘Freethinkers’ truly is. Not only does Jacoby lay out the best defense of secular values that has ever been written (with the possible exception of the Constitution itself), but she also offers an extremely thorough account of American history through the vision of some of America’s most important figures from the past and present.
It is strange to think, how even the late-nineteenth century seemed to have a better understanding of America’s secular foundation than we do today, with people like Robert Ingersoll, whom Jacoby rightly laments has not earned a proper place in American history, nor has there been a politician to fill his shoes up to this point. I was captivated be Jacoby’s brilliant candor on the very first page of the introduction when she stated, “it is impossible to imagine such a forthright celebration of America’s secularist heritage [referring to Ingersoll] today, as the apostles of religious correctness attempt to infuse every public issue… with their theological values.” This statement is obvious with the vocal groups of so-called ‘value voters’ of our current day and with Bush’s faith based initiative, his blocking of stem-cell research, and even referring to military action as a “crusade”. ‘Secular humanists’ may as well be child molesters in the eyes of far too many politicians (and voters) in our country today. Religious faith is a must if one seeks political office, and moreover, suggesting that the separation of church and state is “absolute” as JFK did, seems like it wouldn’t go over well at all in these times. I understand the majority of Americans are Christians of varying denominations, but we have been caught in an embarrassingly pathetic political system where wisdom, honesty, and experience take a back seat to religious faith when seeking the presidency. Ignorant voters proudly admit that they don’t know much about politics but that they will vote for a certain candidate because of their faith. It is shameful and depressing, in my opinion, to hear such pious lunacy.
It is remarkable to think that leaders such as Thomas Jefferson (who deliberately omitted mention of God from the constitution), Abraham Lincoln (who refused to join a church) or even Kennedy would probably have difficulty in the primaries of either party today. It is easy to point to public speeches that presidents have made and say “he mentioned God, clearly he is a Christian (or believer)”, but with some due research, it would not be so easy to declare a substantive number of our past presidents believers in God, and certainly not devout Christians. In another depressing bit of truth, Jacoby points to the timidity of many freethinkers of the last century, in contrast to those of the nineteenth century that allowed religion to claim victory over secularism in the progress of social movements and civil rights.
I found it rather touching in the first chapter entitled ‘Revolutionary Secularism’ to read how achieved Adams and Jefferson felt, up to the end of their lives, for their roles in the establishment of the world’s first wholly secular government. There really isn’t anything to suggest that swearing in on the Bible should have been mandatory, nor should any proclamation of a particular religion. However, the truth is that even those that were not religious had to emphasize their respect for religion if they wanted to garnish any support for separation of church and state. But even in response to these careful secularists, religious conservatives humorously, if also troublingly, cite the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” to mean the founders intended “only to protect religion from government- not government from religion.” These kinds of statements of course ignore the prohibition of religious tests for public office. People who think that religious rules should be imposed on government and a country’s entire population take the obvious course of declaring that “God is the ultimate authority”, and for a lot of supporters, this is more than enough to put all their power into fighting secularism.
Chapter 2 is essentially a brief biography of one of the most under-appreciated men in American history, Thomas Paine. Paine strongly discouraged monarchy and expressed support for the French Revolution in the late 1700s. This back lashed however, when the Revolution turned very violent and beheadings with the Guillotine had begun. Paine went to France to speak against the violence and was imprisoned himself, but was released because of his earlier support for their cause. Paine, because of his explicitly secularist views, has been marginalized in history, and who’s memory was kept alive by small groups, and rare men like Robert Ingersoll. To this day, I bet not too many people would recognize his name, let alone what he stood for (and if so, it would probably ring a bell as the man who inspired Glenn Beck to write his own ‘Common Sense’ book, but I won’t get into that now). His ideas should have a larger place in the public circle when the issue of church-and-state is discussed.
I am going on at length so I will skip a couple chapters involving social movements and Abraham Lincoln’s ambiguous stance on religion and skip to chapter 5, ‘Evolution and Its Discontents’. It is no surprise why Darwin’s theory of Evolution posed such a threat to religious people, certainly Biblical literalists because it “offered an unambiguous opportunity to explain in natural terms what had, for aeons, been explained solely in supernatural terms.” It cut to the very core of religious belief, in that a system- natural selection- could involve such suffering and mass extinction and still point to an omnipotent, benevolent creator. Theologians and religious scientists have been trying to reconcile evolution and religion since Darwin’s time, but in my opinion, it makes perfect sense why religious people harbor such antipathy towards the revolutionary discovery. The opposition to evolution that is maintained to this day is astounding, but not incredibly surprising. I hope we don’t allow our school system to be bullied by vociferous antagonists much longer, because the price we are paying is already clear, in the ignorance so many Americans display in the fields of science.
My favorite part of this book that I was previously unfamiliar with was the part about ‘Comstock Laws’. This battle over censorship pitted Anthony Comstock and many “upstanding Christians” against secularists and some of my favorite writers (including Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw). “Obscenity” and “blasphemy” are two things that are more accepted now by society in general. Some terrific writers from Comstock’s time all the way through today would be banned and censored and perhaps not even published if these laws were upheld. I was unaware of these proposed laws before this book, and I am very grateful they were defeated by the brave people in support of free speech and who understood the importance of literature.
It seemed (and still seems) like common practice for religious conservatives to attribute something that threatened their faith (like Evolution) with an existential threat of the time (like Communism). Jennings Bryan raised a huge ordeal, issuing warning of a “scientific Soviet” that threatened religion in America (referring to the teaching of evolution in schools). This was a year before the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, some time ago, but allegations of this sort are not in short supply today either. One could copy and paste any number of inauspicious words to replace “soviet” in an accusation like Bryans': Scientific “elitists”, “humanists” and “fascists”. These are all words used in a negative connotation, some unjustly so, to make a point that “scientism” has taken over and is trying to keep religious dissenters quit.
Another very useful fact stated in chapter 9, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ addresses the common defense of America as a Christian nation by citing the ‘under God’ part in the Pledge of Allegiance. It is necessary to know that ‘under God’ was not added until 1954, while the McCarthy red scare was at its most extreme. It was added purely as a way to differentiate us from the “Godless Soviets”.
In many conservative religious circles, separation of church and state has become synonymous with ‘anti-Christianity’. There is not merit to this, other than the fact that Christians are the primary ones who oppose it. This is the fear that Jews and members of the ACLU had when they would endorse the wall of separation. The fear has worked for a long time, and the timidity isn’t easily overcome now, but if we want to maintain our freedoms of speech and religion, such timidity must be overcome. I for one do not feel as if America is under grave threat of theocracy, but I am not even comfortable with the baby steps that people are taking in their attempt to get us down that road.
The attempts to include all religions into a national system of believers of some type or another are just as preposterous as trying to make America a Christian nation. This would obviously isolate those that have no religious affiliation and render them even bigger social outcasts than they are already perceived to be. (An example of this being Mrs. Roosevelt’s idea to come up with a prayer that children of all faiths could participate in without feeling excluded). Bah! Aside from the issue of children supposedly having religious faith, this is merely asinine pandering that supports the religious divisions in our world (even while pretending to be unified). Parents would still find a way to complain if they felt their children were being told to pray to a different God than the one they worshipped, even if no specific god was explicitly invoked in the prayer. A very telling thing about history and religion is how easy it was for segregationists and slave-holders to cite the Bible in support of their views. There are elaborate and unfounded stories involving Noah’s son Ham (a belief prevalent in the Mormon Church until recently) that because of his adultery, he was punished with dark skin, emblematic of eternal darkness and banished to Africa where the descendents of Ham were cursed forever. This is, of course ludicrous, but it wasn’t always thought to be so, and we would do well to remember that when we find ourselves underestimating the effects adherence to scripture can have. It’s easy for either side of a debate to shout Bible verses at each other, and I think this proves that there is no clear answer to moral questions for us in the Bible.
“Far from representing a tradition that goes back to the founding fathers, the ubiquitous and obligatory invocations of God by American public officials today represents a radical break with the secularist ideals that formed the basis of the American constitutional government.” This is one of my favorite sentences from the entire book. This was in response to Antonin Scalia’s speech defending the proposition that America is a Christian nation. He cited easily dismissed examples like American currency having the inscription “In God We Trust”, the pledge of allegiance, and then of course the fact that politicians are essentially required to invoke God at the end of every speech. The comedian George Carlin refers to this phenomenon as a “verbal tick” and I must say, that doesn’t seem too far off. "God bless you, and God bless the United States of America." I long for the day when public leaders of this country won’t be pressured to espouse their religious views as if it’s the most important factor in getting elected (although I would still like to know what views they held). It is a well-known fact that an atheist would scarcely have a chance to win the presidency at this point in history, and I do hope that such a prejudice can be done away with. But as long as we have people willing to vote for faith over policy; as long as we have preachers telling their congregations who to vote for, how to interpret scripture, how to feel about social issues, this hope seems tragically far-fetched. We have no shortage of latter-day Billy Grahams' and credulous followers to demonize people who have different values and ideas than them. The stakes are high, and we need to see more people speaking up on behalf of secularization if we don’t want it completely choked out by the boot-heel of religious correctness and propaganda.
There is an appendix to this book, an elegant eulogy given by Robert Ingersoll at Walt Whitman’s funeral. A eulogy as touching and profound as any religiously motivated one. We have a rich heritage in this country that involves many different viewpoints, ideologies and beliefs. It was founded on the idea that no one of these ideologies or beliefs can rule over the country as an impermeable force. This would be, of course, a dictatorship. Why so many fundamentalist Christians in this country can’t see this is beyond me, as they are often the ones who are so gung-ho on freedom. To further the irony, they equate their fundamental beliefs with “true patriotism”. There are many points and many people that I have not addressed in this review. Indeed, there are people that weren’t even mentioned in the book that deserve recognition, but the book was truly astounding and beneficial, both for my historical perspective and secular values that I hold. I felt even more enlightened when I closed this book, and if I recall correctly, I even engaged in a light applause in the presence of only myself. I would recommend it any American; especially any religious person who likes to claim that secularism is the enemy and that America was founded as a Christian country. They may not find a better counter-point to everything they think about this country.