Atheist on the Rocks
FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS, infamous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made good sport debating those who believe in God. His rapier wit and merciless debate style pack houses across the country. But after his January lecture in Portland, at a dinner organized by Literary Arts, Portland Monthly, and Bluehour, Portlanders learned that Hitchens’s swashbuckling stage persona is actually his soft side.
In his book God Is Not Great, Hitchens takes aim at fundamentalist religion. But at dinner, he faced mostly religious progressives: renowned Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, Reed College religion professor Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, and USA Today religion columnist Tom Krattenmaker. "Often," said Hitchens, setting the bait, "I find liberal Christianity to be the most suspicious." Indeed, Hitchens quickly slashed their views down to simple questions: Did Christ rise from the dead? Did the Archangel Gabriel dictate the Koran to Muhammad? "If you don’t believe that, don’t waste our time," Hitchens snorted. "You’re not religious; you’re someone who knows a bit about religion."
After three hours of battle, the dinner party dispersed. Hitchens, fortified by bourbon and still gyroscopically cradling a glass of wine, took a cab to his hotel. But as he finished a cigarette outside the Heathman, one Portlander managed to find a way into the pundit’s heart.
"I love tabbies!‚" Hitchens exclaimed as an orange feline wound figure eights through his legs. "It doesn’t have a collar—what are we to do?"
And with that, cigarette still smoldering, wine glass not yet empty, Christopher Hitchens scooped up the cat and strolled into the hotel lobby.
Christopher Hitchens: I absolutely do not believe any of the figures that say 85% of Americans are religious. It certainly isn’t 85, suppose it to be 70, within that figure is concealed a gigantic well of doubt and disagreement of uncertainty. Since I go almost every week to the various religious institutions and congregations, mainly of Christians but often of Liberal Jews, in particular. It’s impossible to quantify, but you never meet someone that comes up to you and says, “Yes, I firmly believe that having attested to the real presence of Christ in Mass, I have access to a future state that is denied to you.” You never get it that. In fact, if you can’t win 10 bucks by asking a Catholic if they know the difference between the Virgin birth and The Immaculate Conception, you aren’t trying.
They very seldom know even their own theology.
I never cease to be astounded by people in the Americas say, “Oh well, I used to be a Baptist but then I became a…” Do they know what they’re saying? People used to lay their lives on this difference. What could be more secular then?
Often I find liberal Christianity the most suspicious. The people who organized the march on Washington, completely forgotten now, no school child knows the name of Philip Randolph one of the great African Americans or Baynard Rustin. Forgotten them totally because it’s a complete article believed among White Americans that Black Americans love them some pulpits. Give them a preacher that’s what they want. And any preacher that can coin a phrase is immediately baptized by the liberal press as the next Martin Luther King. And a very crude line of descent, from Jesse Jackson who is half, half genuine to abject frauds like Al Sharpton and Mr. Obama’s recent Chaplain in Chicago – demigods, big mouths, time-wasters, money-suckers, which I think has been a terrible disgrace to the history of American forbearance. If African-Americans had stayed with Philip Randolph and Baynard Rustin they would’ve done much better for themselves and for us. I think the most trite thing of all is liberation theology, I think liberation from theology is what people need.
What’s most trite to me the most about liberal Christianity is that they are absolutely solid when you ask them to criticize Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts. They can fight light tigers. They’re completely silent on the fight against really major, aggressive cruel on the side of bureaucracy for Islam, they won’t take it on.
Tom Krattenmaker: I think you have your finger on something, but I think you might overstate it a bit.
Marcus Borg: I mean this is what he does, Tom.
Krattenmaker: Silly me.
Hitchens: I don’t think I exaggerate by much to be honest with you, in fact. There’s a terrible capitulation to relativism at this point by liberal Christians. They don’t want to fight Jihad.
Krattenmaker: I’m probably a little but guilty of that myself. My editor at USA Today sometimes has chided me, ‘Why are you so afraid to say anything critical of Muslims?’
Leslie Zukor: Are you?
Krattenmaker: In my column you will say I plainly condemn any act of violence including and I’ve pinned it to Islam when it indeed has been the case. But I think there is a political correctness that’s a problem, but I do know of many liberal Christians who do condemn any act of violence and misdeed done in the name of religion, whatever the religion is.
Hitchens: There’s nothing to the condemnation, they really are ambiguous they’re making it to anyone who fights against it.
Krattenmaker: They won’t criticize Islam they will claim that the people acting are out of sync with Islam and that they’re misappropriating Islam for something that’s political or cultural. And I’m guilty of that myself, I tend to let religion off the hook.
Borg: I mean yes and no. You don’t completely let religion off the hook. I mean I’m with you on this. There is such a bias against Islam in American culture, including within at least 50% of American Christians, maybe more, who think Christianity is the only way of salvation.
Hitchens: That’s what we have in common.
Borg: Exactly. And so I think there’s good reason not to indict Islam in some blanket kind of way.
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri: Some of it is just good judgment. A lot of people don’t really understand Islam. Take the Iranian Revolution. When it happened it was a Fundamentalist revolution, because look at anyone writing about the Iranian Revolution right now, they rightfully explain it not as a fundamentalist revolution but as a product of liberation theology. Khomeini’s idea of Fundamentalists was radically different from Shia theology that existed.
One of the things that’s happened since 911 is that public discourse about Islam has improved tremendously. But I guess I wouldn’t see it as the letting it off the hook, it’s not what it seems to be some of it seems to be right in some ways.
Marilyn Sewell: Christopher, I have a question. It appears to me that you approach religion from a completely intellectual perspective. And I was interested in Marcus saying that he had a lot of doubts, a lot of questions, which all of us at this table do, but then he had some mystical experiences. Have you ever had a mystical experience or do you think you could conceive a mystical experience or do you think that that whole dimension of reality is sub point or what do you think about mystical experiences?
Hitchens: I try to set some of my faith against the common idea. Atheists can be bleak and materialistic, as it were lacking in visible poetry. Not to dodge your question, I don’t think I could scrub it in my experiences as mystical. And, by the way, I don’t know how I would know that it was mystical.
Borg: You would know.
Hitchens: I’m going to leave that bit of buckshot in your flesh.
Hitchens: Let’s say the transcendent, the numinous, the emotional, the sense of something larger than or what Freud calls the oceanic feeling beyond oneself. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t have it. I think it’s a big cultural task to distinguish that from the superstitious and the supernatural.
Borg: I agree.
Hitchens: Of course William James says quite brilliantly in his Varieties of Religious Experience, which I brought up all the time you were speaking. If these things are true, people who say that they’re true for them, we have to credit it. It wasn’t me, but I’m not going to call them a liar. Unless they say they’ve just seen a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping, if I don’t agree I’m in trouble. They’ve crossed the line there. If it’s profound enough you ought to be able to keep it to yourself. Make poetry out of it or a painting but not prosthelatize .
Sewell: That’s true, you don’t have to prosthelatize to make it true, what I’m saying to you is that there’s a long tradition in many, many various religious traditions of mysticism and usually the mystics agree with one another more than they agree with the early religious, you know, the people in their own tradition. And I think that because you haven’t experienced this, is not a reason to discount it.
Hitchens: No, I agree.
Sewell: Right, ok and so I’d just like to hear Marcus maybe say, Marcus what do you say is mystical I mean how is it different from say what Christopher talks about when he says transcendent? How’s a mystical religious experience differentiated from something like that?
Borg: Some of my mystical experiences have been in connection with the arts, especially music and I typically go to the (Concert Caveau) in Amsterdam once a year or every other year because I’ve had a number of experiences there with the boundaries between that kind of dome of the ego that we walk around in in our ordinary consciousness, you know, the world is out there and I’m in here and that will fall away sometimes and there’s nothing but the glory of the music. Most of my mystical experiences, though, have been much more ordinary than that, that is not specifically triggered by the arts.
Hitchens: Don’t you think there’s a problem in most people’s discussion of this in that, we may as well do this now, the most common experience of people feeling transcendent is erotic.
Hitchens: I mean the very thing that religion makes it the hardest to do. There are natural moments to be had. I’ve met so many Catholics who were afraid to tell the confessor not because they were afraid to tell them about themselves but because they were afraid of shocking him. The fact of the matter is a lot of the transcendent is through that and in some bizarre way religion has set itself against it or decided that it can only be available in very regulated circumstances.
Borg: I’ve had great sex in my life, but it’s never been what I would call a mystical experience.
Leslie Zukor: Well, there’s still time.
Hitchens: Even if it’s best, it’s bound to remind you of the material substrate and the nature of the thing.
GhaneaBassiri : Khomeini wrote mystical poetry.
Hitchens: Erotic too.
GhaneaBassiri : Erotic poetry. And he was afraid of publishing it in his own lifetime.
Hitchens: By the way, who among us has read Khomeini’s sex books?
Hitchens: They’re quite a well-kept secret. He was a really emotional… I’m sorry that they would leave Marcus’s moments of bliss…
Borg: Until I’ve read them I won’t agree with you.
GhaneaBassiri: Well actually, this is one of those interesting things that there’s nothing bad about sex. So there’s no hang-ups about sex, if anything people hide the fact that they have lots of sex so Rumi never talks about this of children and wives and so on. But there is this very erotic language that’s used to talk about mystical experiences, it probably doesn’t have to do with sublimation in the same way it does with the Catholic Church because these people are married and some of them actually develop practices that required what’s called (impression si bajaj) witnessing God in the beauty of others, beautiful boys and so these things existed and they practiced it openly and there was no…
Hitchens: And temporary marriage.
GhaneaBassiri: And temporary marriage. It wasn’t a sublimation of sexuality. If anything, sexuality was used to bring people to religion rather than as a way of…
Hitchens: Not the sexual definition of paradise, which is one thing the Christians can’t come up with. So Christianity sort of falls down.
GhaneaBassiri: Can I ask you a question? There’s an irrationality and superstition of religion and then there’s another critique that leads to that moral judgment because people love absolutist positions that lead to things that others would clearly see as being immoral. And those two don’t necessarily go hand in hand so I was wondering where the critique is exactly or is it both, is it one or the other because if you say it’s ok for Marcus to be completely rational in having mystical experiences…
Hitchens: No not rational, I would say subjective.
Borg: How about super-rational?
Hitchens: He could be enlightened. We don’t know. Achieving enlightenment as the Buddhists say, without God.
GhaneaBassiri: Yeah, but so if we say that’s okay we would clearly have to worry about Marcus making bad choices right now because he could have a vision that would lead him to do something rude or we’d regret Right? So how can it be ok for him to have those things as long as he doesn’t prosthelatize it?
Hitchens: It isn’t unremarkable is it for people who have committed really quite extraordinary crimes to say that they heard voices telling them to do so. In fact, the Israeli police in Jerusalem have a name for it – The Jerusalem Syndrome. People who come to Jerusalem because they’re crazed and because only Jerusalem will do. So I don’t know about you, but if I’m on the bus or the subway and someone begins to say they’re on a mission from God, I tell you to move away. Maybe some of you want to move closer, but self-preservation makes me move further away.
Sewell: But when you judge your mystical experience it is by the fruits of it. If it tells you to murder people then it probably isn’t a good mystical experience.
Hitchens: Says who? Moses was very direct in his orders. So in the (Medina) stories there’s the prophet Mohammed, “Spare not the unbelievable.” And that’s very plain. Says the gentle (Nazarene), “No one comes to the Father, except by me. I am the way of the truth” and the rest of you can go and burn. More extreme than anything said in the Old Testament.
Borg: But I still think Marilyn’s comment is a good one. I agree with you that suicide bombers typically are a faith based initiative and I have no difficulty imagining that one or more of the Al-Qaeda people who hijacked those airliners may have been in a mystical state of consciousness in the last minute or so of their lives as those planes headed towards the towers.
Hitchens: At least.
Borg: So I would come back with what Marilyn had said that the way you differentiate a mystical experience in the context of the Nuremberg rallies of the late ‘30s where many Germans reported an experience which I have never experienced before from, what I would say, is something that is from God is by the fruits that it bears.
Hitchens: I mean I’ve never, I have been at rallies where you felt yourself part of something bigger than yourself, part of the great cause, and you thought it might even take some courage and sometimes it did. So I guess that would be the nearest I have come to a mystical experience. But is there any pleasure equivalent to the idea of thinking for yourself? And wrestling with a philosophical question all night.
Borg: Absolutely important.
Hitchens: Who would exchange the idea of reading Socrates and really trying to understand for the feeling that, ‘Oh great, this feels so cool and I’ve got so many friends.’
Sewell: I would.
Hitchens: One feeling is lonely, but really worth it. We don’t even know Socrates existed and it doesn’t matter because he never said you are to use my method or go to hell. Think for yourself and understand how little you know. That’ll keep me going through night after night. The oceanic feeling of being at a rally or at a constantly incantated weekly ceremony. I’ve been to Friday night prayers several times, chant the same thing, show that you believe it. Rubbish compared to thinking for yourself and taking the risk you could be wrong. It’s like taking a beautiful truffle or fruit and unwrapping and throwing away the fruit without eating the wrapper so that you can feel good.
Sewell: I think sometimes it’s best to let go of all that, Christopher. And I know that probably isn’t your way.
Hitchens: Let go of all which?
Sewell: Your intellect and be somewhere else. You know, because you can do what some people call mind fucking. You can just…
Hitchens: Goodness me.
Sewell: I mean, quite honestly, when I get to the point when I don’t know what I know and when I have to give that up and when I have to admit that I’m lost then sometimes I can go to a place that I could never reach unless I get to the point that I don’t know and I have to just give up. So I guess that’s sort of my own personal experience.
Hitchens: That’s a very excellent definition of the difference I think. They keep saying if you only surrender your mind you could have Buddhist bliss, Hindu bliss..
Borg: But you don’t lose your mind when you do that.
Sewell: You don’t lose your mind.
Borg: You still have all of the intellectual ability that you had before.
Zukor: But why does it have to be mutually exclusive?
Hitchens: It isn’t mutually exclusive. You’re given more points for faith, this I believe.
Zukor: But why should we have to choose between having these mystical, powerful experiences and also finding a similar sort of pleasure in reading Socrates and Plato?
Hitchens: Because with the mystical experiences you would be flattering yourself. You make it easier on yourself. You would not be experiencing the wonderful pleasure of uncertainty. Who wants their anxiety to go away? Where would you be without anxiety?
Hitchens: That’s what I thought you’d say. I think that’s a contemptible position to own. Without our anxiety, without insecurity, without uncertainty nothing worthwhile would come.
Borg: Uncertainty is different from anxiety.
Krattenmaker: Not even for a couple minutes? I would like to be without anxiety for a couple minutes.
Hitchens: No. Not for a second. That’s the false promise of the whole thing.
Borg: Go back to Socrates. Socrates was a mystic.
Borg: Socrates said all these wonderful things, I agree with you. But he also said that this whole question about who is the wisest person in Athens and Socrates ultimately concluded that he was because he knew that he knew nothing at all.
Hitchens: That’s right.
Borg: The test of not knowing.
Hitchens: A religious person cannot say that.
Borg: Of course they can.
Hitchens: They have to stand for something for sure.
Borg: There are many, many, many religious people who would embrace and engage…
Hitchens: How could they say it could be true that Jesus died for my sins? Is that a religious thing?
Borg: Oh, well I agree with you. I don’t believe that for a minute.
Hitchens: It could be that Jesus died for my sins.
Krattenmaker: I think you’re seated next to a person who will completely defend the right of a Christian not to be certain about the factual truth about that assertion.
Hitchens: I’ve read some accounts that say the prophet Mohammed was lectured to by the angel Gabriel. Could be that this is true. It’s not a Muslim saying that. If you don’t believe that, don’t waste our time. You’re not religious; you’re someone who knows a bit about religion. You have to say…
Krattenmaker: Well this is where you have more in common with religious Fundamentalists…
Krattenmaker: In saying that you are not allowed to be religious in this moderate or liberal way.
Hitchens: It’s the only place I have respect for them. Do you believe it or don’t you? It’s only really a matter of…
Krattenmaker: Well, what do you mean by believe?
Krattenmaker: Believe means something different in the long sweep of history.
Hitchens: I would say, that a Christian is someone who believes in the Resurrection.
Krattenmaker: Literally, factually?
Hitchens: Someone who does not believe in the Resurrection is not a Christian. Now, how can you disagree with that?
Borg: But it depends what you mean by the Resurrection. Does it mean that the tomb was empty and that the flesh of Jesus was transformed.
Hitchens: Yes. Without that, it’s just another cult.
Borg: Another cult? I mean it’s one of the religions, I have no issue with that but just another cult.
Hitchens: But if you don’t believe that it is just another facility. You have to believe that not only was there a resurrection, but the crucifixion, this is very important. People have been willing not just to kill, but to die. So we shouldn’t be flippant about it. That your sins are forgiven if you believe this if you have vicarious redemption.
Borg: But that belief is a thousand years old, but not more.
Hitchens: Well if it wasn’t at least that old then who would possibly believe it?
GhaneaBassiri: If you believe something doesn’t make you a Christian because it has to be a sort of community that affirms that or accepts it because I could go and say I believe in the Resurrection and that doesn’t make me a Christian.
Hitchens: But the Koran doesn’t forbid you to believe in the Resurrection, it just makes, it says it didn’t take place, but it says that Jesus was a great prophet. And admires his mother and it says the only reason it didn’t take place was because someone else was crucified…how can you tell me that they haven’t got that right?
GhaneaBassiri : The tradition says those things. But, I mean, my point is if you define religion in terms of beliefs alone and don’t take into consideration the communities that have developed around it, the opposite…I mean there was actually sort of the Resurrection became a Christian belief because there was a church that developed that confirmed is as such. What’s to stop that from liberal Christians today coming up with a different definition, developing community around that belief and saying they’re Christians?
Hitchens: Nothing at all to stop it, but please stop telling me when you’ve really admitted that all these things are just an adaptation. Then stop telling me that without religion we wouldn’t have morality. So, obviously, you’ve just said it’s all man made and it’s adapted to convenience by different groups.
Borg: Oh, it is all humanly constructed.
Hitchens: If I was a believer, I wouldn’t say that. I really wouldn’t. I was once asked, can you make a statement that you think is true at all times, survives all texts? I said, yes I can. What is it? “I know that my redeemer liveth.” This is the life of the Messiah. Now that I can understand. If you say, I’ve read this Crucifixion story, it may be useful to tell children it’s quite a pretty tale like this Bethlehem…
Sewell:: Christopher. You’re sitting here with at least three or four of us that have given our lives to this faith and have studied for many years and you’re willing to tell us that we’re not Christian?
Hitchens: No, I’m not telling you. I’m saying that if you don’t believe in the Resurrection.
Sewell: I’m saying that I don’t and I’m saying that I am a Christian.
Krattenmaker: Marcus, tell him how the definition of believe has evolved. Isn’t that something that you talk about?
Borg: Oh sure, sure. And not just me, but very persuasive intellectual study not done by me, but by others. I’m told that roughly the year 1600 the word “believe” never had a statement as its direct object, but always a person. And that it meant something more like I be-love, in the sense of I commit myself to, I give my allegiance to, I pledge my fidelity to, and so it wasn’t about believing a set of statements that were literally true.
Hitchens: So what is your understanding of the meaning of the word creed?
Borg: Creed? It comes from the credo the Latin word which means I give my heart to. And I give my heart to, I give my loyalty to, I pledge my allegiance to God, and who’s that? The one we say he’s thinking about and to Jesus.
Hitchens: Credo means, in Latin, “I believe.”
Borg: But you’re plugging the modern not the 1600 meaning of believe into that.
Hitchens: The definition of “creed” is not from 1600.
Borg: No, no credo is in that, but credo meant “I commit myself to, I give my allegiance to not…”
Hitchens: Which you would do to something you didn’t believe or someone you didn’t believe in?
Borg: Well, I think you’re wrong in that.
Hitchens: I take this as very poor theology, I’ve got to say, and very poor Latin. Do you think the people who got themselves burned and burned other people said I’m killing you because you don’t say you love or you don’t say you give your heart to…
Borg: That’s a separate issue as to how the creed has been often times used in the history of Christianity to exclude, to persecute, to murder. I mean I’m with you on that.
Hitchens: I would be opposed to it, even if they didn’t do any of those things. It doesn’t say if you don’t believe this you should go to hell, it says this is what I believe. I’ll lay my life on it, it’s better than the other creed in Nicaea. And it says I believe the following things: creator of heaven and Earth, who had a son… I take this stuff a lot more seriously than you do.
Borg: You take it more seriously so you can reject it out of hand.
Hitchens: I’ve studied this stuff. Credo is a creed that says you must believe the following or you’re not a Christian. It’s incanted everyday and children are made to do it and you’re saying, “Oh don’t take that too seriously, it’s just I give my heart.” Centuries of incantation. What a very magical thought that your sins can be forgiven.
Borg: It’s not primarily about intellectual ascent to the liberal meaning of these words or whatever meaning you would take them.
Hitchens: No one said the ascent was intellect.
Borg: Mental ascent?
Hitchens: I would say ecstatic ascent, for example the more you recite it with the more music and stained glass and architecture around you, the more they might believe it. People who said they didn’t believe it, met a very short and sharp end. The faith would not be what it is now – insipid, relativistic, open-minded, purist, as strong as it was then – the reason it was strong then was because you didn’t dare doubt it, didn’t dare. No right to discern the past that gave them the power that they now have. Who would listen to the Pope now? Benedict of Bavaria who put on a business suit and appeared on a balcony in Milan in his own person. Who would? No one…you couldn’t get the chickens away.
Hitchens: He’s only there because of the Inquisition, the Crusades, those that built St. Peter’s. You’re telling me that all they were saying was, “We give our heart.” No, come on. The reason I never get bored with this subject is I take religion very seriously.
Zukor: I’m curious you keep equating religion and relativism yet many Christians like to say that it is the Atheists that are promoting relativism.
Hitchens: Why do you think I’ve been doing this so long? I’ve been working for years to turn that question round on them. They have no guarantee that their morality is absolute. Their rule would be more strict, more…they leak at every joint. They always will. People say, ‘Okay it’s true that the Christians were pro-slavery, but in those days it was different.’ So what? God didn’t know slavery was wrong. No, of course not. If you remember a church like that don’t tell me I have no objective place in morality that’s all I’m saying. That’s what they get them to do. They talk to me and say, “Without religion how will you know right from wrong?” I say, “Well I don’t need your advice.”
Randy Gragg: A lot of this discussion and a lot of your critique is about religion as a power rolling over the weak. Early on in the discussion, you did this very sweeping dismissal of liberation theology, which is all about empowering the weak. I’m curious about Dr. Bethel because certainly in many Portland churches liberation theology is alive and it’s certainly alive as you mentioned with Obama’s pastor. It has grown out of a completely different attitude towards power than most of this discussion has explored. I’m curious if Dr. Bethel has any thoughts about this.
Dr. Bethel: Well I certainly don’t want all of African American pastors to be characterized by what Jeremiah Wright says. But out of our experiences of what life has brought, going back to the way that certain songs were sung which gave birth to what we know now as spirituals, a lot of those spirituals contain messages. I give for example one song that says, “Oh Lord, I want to be a Christian,” which was traditionally sung by the Caucasian church. But it was always by the slaves we added “in my heart.” It’s saying, “There needs to be a change. You can’t just say this and treat me this way if it isn’t going to change.” So we sing, “I want to be a Christian in my heart” because it makes a difference then as to how I deal with people and how you treat me. So when we think about this whole thing of liberation theology, there is something that we have found to be liberating. We’re all creatures of God.
Hitchens: That’s something we know not to be true. It’s the one, almost the only thing that Paul studied and absolutely chose as not true. We’re no such thing, we’re the product of evolution…
Bethel: Do you believe that Adam and Eve were the beginning of mankind?
Hitchens: Who would make a statement that was more ridiculous than that?
Bethel: Okay, well do you believe that, did you evolve from some little species that finally got you into being what you are today? I happen to not believe that.
Hitchens: Ah I thought I’d catch you, finally! You are a creationist!
Hitchens: Most ridiculous reactionary belief that’s possible.
Bethel: I can give you your opinion.
Hitchens: You either believe that you are one of God’s children, creation, or you believe that evolution by natural selection and mutation occurred.
Borg: They’re not contradictions.
Hitchens: I knew it wouldn’t be wrong, we’re all God’s children.
Gragg: Christopher, let Marcus speak here. Let’s look at a different position.
Borg: I mean Creationism as I understand it is the argument that the Genesis, first three chapters of Genesis, are literally and factually true. That the Earth is young, 10,000 years old or less, and that things were created in six days and all of that and I utterly reject that, but to say that evolution is the way that things happened that’s absolutely fine with me and I experience no…
Hitchens: The question wasn’t to you.
Borg: Well, no I was invited into this.
Hitchens: Yes, you were to protect our congregant.
Bethel: Oh no, no, no you don’t have to protect me. I know where I stand and I’m always willing to hear what somebody else has to say and respect that.
Hitchens: Do you believe that we are God’s creations?
Bethel: Do I believe…
Hitchens: No slack card. Do you believe that we are created, we are God’s children?
Bethel: Yes, I believe that we are God’s children.
Gragg: But Marcus’s point was that they’re not mutually exclusive and I don’t know if he completely has been able to make that point.
Hitchens: I’m sorry. You either believe that or you don’t. The belief that it isn’t true isn’t very compatible with the belief that it is. I would say kind of exclusive, one or the other
Borg: For me, there’s no issue between affirming evolution and affirming that we are all creatures of God.
Hitchens: Well, you’re very easy on yourself.
Borg: Just like I stand against Biblical literalism which I think makes Christianity foolish, I stand against the judgmentalism that goes with a lot of Christianity and with other religions and with some forms of secular ideology. So we do stand against things and it’s not just that well I see things this way and you see things this way…
Sewell: I see you saying you’re either this way or that no grey area there. There’s so much that’s grey and undecided that we have to look into and I don’t see you acknowledging any of that. I see you saying, “Look it’s either this way you’re a Christian or it’s that way and you’re not a Christian.”
Hitchens: No, sorry perhaps I was wasting my time.
Bethel: But see I believe once you accept God into your life there comes a transformation in your thinking, in what you believe and it has an impact on your life. That makes a difference and each of us sitting around this table has made a decision based on whether there is God or not. And I happen to believe that you deny and say there is no God, which helps me prove that there is a God because how can you deny something…
Hitchens: Does your church pay taxes?
Bethel: Does my church pay taxes?
Bethel: No, we’re tax exempt.
Bethel: Just like many of your corporations do not pay taxes.
Bethel: No, no if you want to take it all the way let’s take it all the way. Many of your corporations do not pay taxes and many folk who are extremely rich do not pay taxes.
Hitchens: Does your church get any funding from the faith-based initiative?
Bethel: No we do not receive any funds from the faith-based initiative.
Hitchens: It’s at least something. But you don’t have to pay taxes for saying what you’ve just been saying?
Bethel: No I don’t have to pay taxes for saying what I’ve just been saying as a church. The church doesn’t have to pay taxes, but any funds that I receive I pay full taxes on.
Zukor: If you think religion’s a profession of faith then what do you think of something like humanistic Judaism that doesn’t require a belief in God?
Hitchens: Why call it Judaism?
Zukor: Because they’re in touch with their cultural heritage as people raised as Jews.
Hitchens: Then call it nationalism, ethnicism or something. I’m sympathetic to that, why not? But then you’re still not a, in a soft manner, I keep saying I really respect people who are religious I really don’t respect people who are quasi. Who won’t lose a single square inch of their own skin.
Krattenmaker: Yeah, that’s one problem with liberal faith. Too often it..
Hitchens: Will you die for it or will you kill?
Krattenmaker: Too often it equates with lukewarm faith, it doesn’t have to be that and my hope is that the face of liberal faith changes and it becomes known for taking a firm stance, for being absolutely as passionate as Fundamentalist faith. That is a real challenge if, you know, faith is going to be rescued from Fundamentalism long term. Whether that will happen, I don’t know. Sometimes in my darker hours about faith I think that human beings are incapable of doing it right. That’s an unresolved question.
Hitchens: Trotsky used to say that the definition of a revolutionary was not his willingness to kill, his willingness to die.
Sewell: What would you die for?
Hitchens: I was about to say for me, I know what I’d kill for.
Sewell: What would you die for?
Hitchens: I don’t want to die without killing one of the Jihadists. I’d be ashamed to die without taking at least two. So even if they kill me, they’re one behind. I really sincerely want to have a war that leads to the absolute destruction and humiliation of these people. I think about it day and night and implying that I have yes, of course, given public lectures in Beirut against them where they threaten me and Baghdad, other places too. Of course they won’t kill me, that would be a very poor triumph.
GhaneaBassiri : Would you have said that in the 1980s in Afghanistan when they were fighting the Russians?
GhaneaBassiri: When we were declaring our autonomy?
Hitchens: No. When they were not fighting liberal democracy and killing civilians in western airlines I wasn’t so against them. When they were fighting the Soviet Union, not so bad, not good.
GhaneaBassiri: It’s not so much Jihadism.
Hitchens: You’ve been in Portland too long my love. In Portland that question counts as absolutely decisive intervention. Look, when they were trying to kill Brezhnev I wasn’t so against them. If they fought Sadaam Hussein I wouldn’t be against them, but when they try and kill civilians in the United States and grandfathers and granddaughters in Denmark.
GhaneaBassiri: What you’re saying is I want to kill someone who’s against me, that’s all you’re saying.
Hitchens: No, not against me, not one.
GhaneaBassiri: Essentially what you’re saying is Jihadism as a philosophy you’re against anyone who has a philosophy who…
Hitchens: The Shia rebellion against Sadaam Hussein I would’ve supported it, did support it.
GhaneaBassiri : It was very opportunistic right.
Hitchens: No, it’s not opportunistic; it’s tactical.
GhaneaBassiri : The interesting thing here is that this philosophy of doubt places everything into this political realm, right, in which what really becomes important is not morality or principles, but how it is you advance yourself politically. So that you make allies with the Jihadists when they’re fighting the same enemy and when they’re fighting you, then you’re against them.
Hitchens: Obviously, you’re wedded to this point and you’re not going to drop it. Believe me, you can’t imagine you’re the first person to play this sort of action. The question is now, there are now Jihadists who are willing to blow up themselves in school yards and train stations in the west, and all you can do is say, “Well we used to be on their side when they were fighting the Soviet Union.” I mean I think you’ll have to get off that dime before you can move the argument much further.
GhaneaBassiri: The Jihadists that today are blowing themselves up in the west are pretty different from the people who were fighting against the Soviet Union.
Hitchens: I would say yes. Well why do you keep bringing it up then as comparison? Why was that the only thing you could muster against me?
GhaneaBassiri : Because what I’m trying to understand in your arguments is whether or not these are politically strategic arguments or whether they’re based on particular principles.
Hitchens: No this is not strategic; they have announced that the society I live in, making my living of, is my life, whatever you want to call it, is their own. They don’t want to fight the Taliban, they want to fight the elected government of Afghanistan and blow up its people. They don’t want to fight Al-Qaeda or the Mesopotamias, they want to fight the elected chair of the government of Iran and the elected Kurdish government of Afghanistan. When the volunteered that’s what they wanted to do and I said, “No, I want them to be killed.” And if I could help kill them, I would. Where I can I do. What’s so complicated about that? I don’t get it. This is no longer a difference in opinion, it’s confrontation, in fact it’s very nearly a war. And it’s not ‘cause I say so and if I die tonight, you’d be reminded of it by everything you read every other day in the newspapers of the year to come. I’m not going to let you, in the religious they’re not going to leave you alone, they’re not, they are not.
Zukor: And are fundamentalist Christians and Islamists on the same side because they both believe that God is on their side?
Hitchens: No, they think they’re not on the same side, not at all. The only time I know they were on the same side was on 911 when Oral Roberts appeared on the TV to say, “Of course you should expect New York to be punished for something.” But then the same week Gore Vidal and Normal Mailer said the same thing, it was a punishment for the George Bush presidency. So you can’t deal with true believers, they’re not on the same side but they think the same way.
If you allow that this more respectable, or more honorable, or in some way more numinous to be a person of faith to anyone why can’t you allow it to everyone? I am simply saying, take the risk of thinking for yourself and making the first assumption that you’re probably wrong. More pleasure, more innovation, every innovation, every discovery, every humanistic emancipation has come from that. Nothing has come from faith. And it’ll keep you going for the whole of your life, you’ll never get bored of thinking for yourself and taking the risk that you’re wrong and reading more and understanding how much more educated you are, the less educated you are about something. That’s emancipation, that’s beautiful. And it’s really useful. Making a profession of faith and regular incantations makes you in common with the people who bang their heads on the floor five times a day to announce that they’re slaves.