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Hitch Looks Back

Christopher Hitchens, the verbal pugilist and famed raconteur, recently debated his brother Peter on the subject of religion, his own diagnosis of lung cancer, and the value -- or not -- of prayer at life's end. We bring you the edited excerpts of Hitch's remarks.

David Levenson/Getty Images
David Levenson/Getty Images

Until not much more than a century, a century-and-a-half ago … [t]here was a Christian world. It had been partly evolved, partly carved out by the sword, partly defended by the sword, at some points giving way, at other times expanding. But it was a meaningful name for a community of belief and value that endured for many, many centuries — and has many splendors to its name.

And it’s all gone; no one could use that term [Christendom] now without either great nostalgia or some degree of irony. It’s all gone.… It destroyed itself.

We’ve had to wrestle for a very long time with the idea, what will we do about civilization; what will we do about values, ethics, morals; how will we teach them; how will we learn to live with one another in the absence of any real religious authority, any credible one, any one that’s worthy of the name, worthy of respect?

We haven’t yet conquered the problem of alienation or of anomie or of spiritual waste or of the fear of death.… But I don’t think it’s really true to say that we live less civilized a life than those of our predecessors who felt that there was a genuine religious authority that spoke with power.

[I]f you go around the public halls and the provincial theaters, as I do whenever I can, and engage with belief and the believers, you’ll find to an extraordinary extent that a kind of ethical humanism with a vague spiritual content is extremely commonplace.

Expressions of solidarity are very welcome and very touching to me in whatever form they take. I do resent, always have resented, the idea that it should in some way be assumed that now that you may be terrified, say, or miserable or, as it might be, depressed, surely now would be a perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.

I’ve always thought this to be rather a repulsive mode of approach, and there’s a disgusting history of people either attempting to inflict deathbed conversions on people like Thomas Paine in their extremity or making up lies about it afterwards, as they did about Charles Darwin and many others. That I find wholly contemptible.

But it’s only vestigially applied in my case; surely, I ought to think more about these things now than I would anyway. No, not at all. I’ve already thought about them a great deal. Thanks all the same.

I think that we’re probably doomed to some kind of relativism, or perhaps better to say approximation [of morality]. Who is going to tell me, here is a law that is absolutely true and will hold good for all time and has been proclaimed scripturally? We might say, thou shalt not kill. It would be probably inevitable we would have to start with that. But it doesn’t say, thou shalt not kill. It says, thou shall do no murder, and everybody knows that there is a real difficulty in deciding when killing is murder and that the situational ethics of this are very complicated but are common to all times and places.

I’m rather glad, as a matter of fact, from the point of … moral and intellectual and ethical exercise, that you can’t just tell someone one thing, that that’s right and that’s true for all time, and there’s nothing to argue about. That’s why I object to the idea of commandments in the first place. Morality is not learned by orders. It’s acquired by experience, by moral suasion, and by comparing and contrasting different ways of resolving these questions.

I used to ask a question. I’ve now asked it in public, on the radio, in print, in TV debates with quite a lot of leading religious figures and thinkers. It’s simply this: You ought to be able to tell me of a moral action performed or an ethical statement made by a believer that I couldn’t make because I’m a nonbeliever. You ought to be able. Given what you think, it must be very easy for you to say, here’s something you couldn’t say or do that would be morally right or morally true. No takers; I haven’t found a single example.

But if I was to say to someone, now can you name me please a hideous immoral act undertaken or an immoral remark made by someone because of their faith — not in its name, but because of it — you’ve already thought of one. Now you’ve thought of another one, and you’ll keep on thinking of them. So I think that pretty much disposes of the question, with its implied insult, that without faith one would have no ground for, say, acting rightly when no one else was looking or answering the promptings of conscience.

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