A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

I Didn’t Meet Christopher Hitchens

This past Tuesday, I subjected myself to one of the great and goofy arguments of all time–“Is there an afterlife?”–which, as a subject, ranks right next to, “Is there a God?” and “Who would win in a fight, The Incredible Hulk or Superman?” By the way, the answer is The Incredible Hulk, because Superman is basically a giant battery, while the Hulk is a fusion reactor. Superman stores power, but the Hulk produces it, fusing the lighter elements of frustration and suffering into the heavier elements of purpose and rage. And as pointless as that little analysis was, it still produced more useful insight than Tuesday’s topic.

Of course, all of this means that I had a fantastic time listening to the debate, since I tend to enjoy those kinds of things–like when I decided long before the Star Wars comic that Darth Vader could definitely defeat Darth Maul. As you’ve gathered from the title, I’m sure, Christopher Hitchens was one of the panelists, as was Sam Harris, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. Harris is famous for recycling sophomoric anti-religious arguments that were cutting edge in 1711. He undergirds them with various scientific supports, which are, of course, irrefutable and also spectacularly uninteresting to anyone who is actually interested in the dialogue between religion and science. No reasonable person disputes the impossibility that God possesses discernible human mercy, nor do they believe religion has anything useful to say about the genome, evolution, or the chronology of the universe. Of course, there are lots of people who do deploy religion in the service of material investigations, but they also happen to be people upon whom such arguments fall mute. The impression I get in reading Harris, and now listening to him, is that he does not understand this. He believes his project is not only viable, but courageous; unfortunately, it is neither.

As I said before, the debate that Harris is having was won hundreds of years ago, and the current resurrection of creationist ideas in the United States has less to do with the clash of ideas and everything to do with the failure of the democratic imagination. The United States–beginning when I don’t know–mistook leveraging the exceptional to the benefit of all, for exceptionalizing the average to the benefit of none. Democracy and its republican iterations are unmatched in their ability to foster equality–even when they fail to do so–but become tyrannical when loosed upon the imagination. Scientific and artistic leaps require the intrepid, the rebellious and the foolish, none of whom respond favorably to crowd control. Enlarging the national imagination should be the first order of business for every intellectual and artist, if it makes any sense at all to use phrases like “first order,” and words like “business” when it comes to the imagination, which it probably doesn’t, but my point is that calling someone stupid and deluded is about as useful as calling someone tiny-pricked and sexually inept. It may be true, but if you want a better lover, you better get in there and start working; condescension and insults only verify your common problem.

Now, my opinion of Harris may be wrong. I grant that; public and private personas often differ, and I hope that in private his views are more nuanced and interesting. Indeed, what he lacks in this arena is precisely what makes someone like Christopher Hitchens engaging–showmanship. In all fairness, Hitchens’ arguments against religion are no more interesting than Harris’s. They both pit the weakest religious examples against the strongest scientific and political cases, and the result is a straw-men rout. Hitchens, however, does it with style. He never forgets that these types of public debates should be entertaining before didactic. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be both, but if they’re not the first, the second has little hope of success.

Hitchens has his own set of debilitating vanities, of course, as when he dismissed St. Augustine as a 4th-century North African pseudo-intellectual, neglecting to acknowledge that his own autobiography, Hitch-22, follows Augustine’s Confessions as closely as any autobiography has for the last 1600 years. The idea that one can bring insight and meaning to one’s life through literary examination was first accomplished in the West by Augustine of Hippo, and although Confessions is profoundly religious, its influence is a perfect example of how deeply the religious and secular interpenetrate one another. It must be said, though, that Hitchens delivered the line well, and it produced the laugh I’m sure he desired. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that his political arguments are rarely as simplistic, and that he is one of the great wits of the 20th century: he once said of televangelist Jerry Falwell that, “If you gave [him] an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.” Hitchens is certainly no light weight, in spite of his weak anti-religious arguments.

After the debate, the four participants gathered in a room, where those of us who paid too much for tickets were able to meet and greet–and fawn over–the stars. I spent a few minutes talking to both Rabbi Wolpe and Rabbi Artson; Wolpe because he happened to be standing near the chocolate-covered strawberries I was elbowing my way towards, and Rabbi Artson because he was unpretentious and intelligent in an avuncular sort of way, and his nuanced insights during the debate were the perfect counterpoint to Harris’s simplicity and Hitchens’ panache. We were some of the first people to arrive in the reception area, and when we entered, Hitchens was all but alone. I’ve never been one for autographs or celebrity photos, and it’s a good thing, because while Molly and I talked about finding food, Hitchens was swarmed by wide-eyed groupies milling for his attention. My friend and his wife made the mistake of treating him in an ordinary human sort of way, and they were quickly stampeded to the periphery.

Standing near Hitchens was the first time I’ve been near someone famous who was also charismatic. People didn’t just clamor for attention as they do with the usual celebrity; their bodies seemed to slack for it–lips parted, rib cages lengthened, knees softened, like expectant contestants on “The Bachelor.” I swear, if he didn’t leave the room with several sexual propositions from men and women, implied or otherwise, I don’t know what desire looks like. Hitchens, for his part, was engaging and attentive. He seemed genuinely interested in what his admirers had to say. Gone was all trace of the condescension seen on stage, replaced by the open and unmistakable desire for human connection. For a moment, I felt the uncharacteristic desire to introduce myself and ask him some question that proved I wasn’t just a groupie, but then I noticed Molly staring at him a little too intently, and I figured it was time to go before whatever scent was turning all these people into gopis perfumed our senses too.

On the way home we talked about him a lot, and I remember thinking that under the circumstances, it was a good thing we didn’t meet Christopher Hitchens.

4 Responses to I Didn’t Meet Christopher Hitchens

  1. I’m not interested in defending Sam Harris’s relentless attack on religion, but I think his thoughts about a universal human ethic are worth considering. There’s a discussion of the subject here for anyone interested: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/the-moral-landscape-q-a-w_b_694305.html

  2. C. Travis Webb says:

    Yes, I really like the idea of a universal human ethic. However, those who argue for it, Harris included, tend to overplay the biological basis for morality, I think. Our neurological structures haven’t changed all that much in the last 10,000 or so years, but our moral codes have. Modern Italians, for example, basically have the same brains as ancient Romans, with radically different ideas of right and wrong. How do we explain these differences using biology, or “moral structures” in the brain?

    Still, I do like the idea of some sort of universal morality; I’m just not sure its scientific justification is all that plausible, at least as I understand the scientific enterprise. What would a falsifiable moral claim look like without a cultural context?

    Thanks for posting the Harris, though. He is, of course, not nearly as one dimensional as I made him sound. But, you know, everyone needs a punching bag.

  3. Anon says:

    The influence of someone (i.e. Augustine) has no bearing on the validity of their intellect. Augustine was a relentless religious apologist, not to mention social terrorist through religious fear.

    Also, the morality argument is not just Harris’s. It is much older than that. Inherent morality is as old as humanity (in its current state), coming well before fabricated ways of controlling people and answering hitherto unanswerable questions (every single answer of which so far discovered has been incorrect, by the way). The man-made nature of religion is blatant, but some people cannot see the wood for their own pretentious trees.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      First of all, thanks for responding! It’s always nice to have readers provoked to comment. I appreciate it–sincerely. Unfortunately, the pleasantries have to end there, since you’ve fundamentally misunderstood my essay–and threw in a snarky off the mark haymaker to boot (“pretentious trees,” really? That’s your zinger?) Your tone deaf reading of my essay misses entirely its self-conscious irony: my opinion is without consequence to those I’m writing about. But okay, fine, perhaps you gave it a quick read and missed some of the nuance. I’ve certainly done that before. But even after that consideration there are, unfortunately, all of the other errors.

      Are you under the impression I believe religion is anything other than man made? It isn’t, of course. It’s a point so obvious that writing about it for anything other than a grade-school primer is about as interesting to me as Harris’s description of the “Moral Landscape.” And of course morality is biologically inflected. Does any serious thinker believe otherwise? It can’t be anything but biologically based–though that doesn’t make it biologically deterministic, or absolute. All languages are biologically based, for example, but their diversity is myriad. In this way I would align myself with George Santayana and various other transcendental naturalists, but again, though it might be necessary to rabble rouse that point in a room full of evangelicals, I assume my readers are after something else. If you, on the other hand, are interested in another rousing morality play that type casts religion as the “benighted fool” foiled by the high-minded protagonist “scientific reason,” you’re in the wrong place. I’ve seen it too many times. It’s insipidly boring, viciously dull, and deeply ignorant of the human predisposition to myth making.

      But I do, sincerely, thank you for reading. Perhaps we’ll find accord on some other matter.

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