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Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?
Posted: 04 February 2010 07:50 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?

By Eric Reitan
February 4, 2010
http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/religionandtheology/2253/christopher_hitchens,_religious_in_spite_of_himself

Not long ago, Christopher Hitchens—pugilistic author of “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”—sat down for an interview with retired Unitarian minister (and self-professed “liberal Christian”) Marilyn Sewell. . . .

[In “God Is Not Great,”] Hitchens seems to take “the numinous” to refer to nothing more than a feeling of awe or wonder, which according to Hitchens can (and should) be inspired by purely natural phenomena without any invocation of the supernatural. But in his interview with Sewell, Hitchens goes further. When asked to talk about it he replies that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here-to wit, that “the numinous” refers to the sense that there’s something more to our existence than just the material world? Something…dare we call it…supernatural?

Sewell presses on, explaining why she finds a close alignment between the numinous in Hitchens’ sense and her own experience of religion. Moments later when asked about “the soul”—inspired by his oft repeated claim that “literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and soul”—Hitchens responds:

“It’s what you might call ‘the x-factor’—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.”

Were he not so quick to follow up by deriding religion once again, one might take him here for a deeply religious man. . . .

For me, the essence of religion is the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous. . . . And this may be what makes Hitchens, for all his bombast and pugilistic excesses, the best of the so-called New Atheists. While he refuses to call the human quest for the transcendent religious, he also explicitly rejects imposing artificial constraints on that quest. And this means that, in the end, he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas, dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.

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Posted: 04 February 2010 09:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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josh_karpf - 04 February 2010 07:50 AM

For me, the essence of religion is the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous. . . . And this may be what makes Hitchens, for all his bombast and pugilistic excesses, the best of the so-called New Atheists. While he refuses to call the human quest for the transcendent religious, he also explicitly rejects imposing artificial constraints on that quest. And this means that, in the end, he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas, dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.

I don’t buy into this speculation once bit.
First of all religion is not “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”. Religion is the blind faith in a God or Gods. Hitchens does not believe in any God. He has never said so or come close to hinting at it in this or any other interview. He has said exactly the opposite thousands of times and written about it. His comments on there being more than the simple physical is simply an expression, felt by many if not all atheists from time to time, of the mystery of the formation of a ‘personality’ by an organ like the brain and our present lack of understanding of how this occurs. The fact that he ‘wonders’ about this is a million miles away from any kind of religious belief and your comments are what I would call more than a reach; a lengthy stretch perhaps…

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Posted: 04 February 2010 12:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The religious will always try to force a religious spin on everything. Nothing to see here.

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Posted: 04 February 2010 01:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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josh_karpf - 04 February 2010 07:50 AM

(Hitchens): “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

...he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas, dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.

I’ve never felt that there was more to life than just matter, unless you also include matter’s other form: energy.  There are, of course, things we do not know.  But that doesn’t mean there’s any supernatural creator or deity.

Atheist dogmas?  I’m not aware there are any.  Atheists simply apply the scientific method (humanity’s most successful tool for answering questions) to life’s questions.  Some (but not all) atheists also adopt a pragmatic axiom that it makes sense to believe something does not exist when repeated tests have not resulted in evidence that it does exist.  Instead of searching infinitely long, they say after hundreds of years of searching for evidence of deities, we’ve done enough, and let’s live life now, until something new happens.  I see nothing wrong with that approach.

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Posted: 04 February 2010 02:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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josh_karpf - 04 February 2010 07:50 AM

... he isn’t afraid to explore beyond the limits imposed by atheist dogmas, dogmas which prohibit understanding the numinous in anything but reductionistic terms.

I didn’t notice this little peach of gibberish.  Atheists do not profess, follow or believe in dogmas of any kind. Atheists do not believe in GOD !  So why would they have any interest in promoting any kind of understanding of your numinous religious ideas ? This statement of yours makes no rational sense.

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Posted: 04 February 2010 08:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Hitchens repeatedly makes the point in debates that there is no righteous action which a religious person can take which an atheist could not do as well—he repeatedly challenges the opponent to find an example.

The fact that he finds righteous behaviour has nothing to do with religion does not make him “religious” except in a generalization of that word to a secular context (like “faith in science” in the case of Richard Dawkins).

To me this is sounds like saying “humanists” are “religious in spite of themselves”....

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Posted: 05 February 2010 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Quoting Josh:

When asked to talk about it Hitchens replies that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

  Hitchens is unjustified in the inclusive “everybody” because I have never had that experience.  To me, it appears that he’s just pandering to the “soul” freaks who want to sneak something beyond the material into the discussion framework.  I believe Josh’s comments were justified and scepticeye’s criticism of that comment not too rational.

Occam

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Posted: 06 February 2010 05:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Uh, just for the record, those were the comments of the religious columnist, not mine!

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Posted: 06 February 2010 05:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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josh_karpf - 06 February 2010 05:07 AM

Uh, just for the record, those were the comments of the religious columnist, not mine!

[Here is link to Porland Monthly Magazine with the interview. There are links to the Full transcript and also an MP3 download]

[here is another site with a download and a short discussion] This short excerpt touches on something that Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Hichens see—there is a wide spectrum of belief among people who call themselves “Christians” and the tail of the distribution includes liberal Christians who believe in very little of the literal truth.


When I listen to the interview I focus on this aspect—- Hitchens and Harris emphasize that if the “truth claims” are not valid, then the claims that religion provides a basis for morality are specious. etc. etc.

Hitchens: “Well, only in this respect: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ – in other words, the Messiah – and that he rose again from the dead and that by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you are really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”


I will have to reread your criticism of Hitchens—I am focusing on something different in the interview. 

[Sewell]...in the Jesus Story as story – as narrative – and Jesus as a person whose life is exemplary and that I want to follow, but I do not believe in all that stuff that I just outlined…”

Hitchens: “I simply have to tell you that every major Christian thinker and theologian has said that without the resurrection and without the forgiveness of sins, what I call the Vicarious Redemption, it’s meaningless. In fact, without that it isn’t even a nice story…”

I think this is where Hitchens is trying to move the discussion….he is turning an interview into a debate….

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Posted: 06 February 2010 07:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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scepticeye - 04 February 2010 09:00 AM

First of all religion is not “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”. Religion is the blind faith in a God or Gods.

It is not for you to dictate the meaning of religion to the world. Whether you like it or not, or will accept it or not, the quoted statement expresses the meaning of religion to a great many people, including me. Transcendence can refer not to the supernatural but to our current abilities. For many of us, a God or gods have nothing to do with it.

Remarks like this boil my blood. This is rank dogmatism, a pure emotional reaction without the slightest intellectual merit. This is the sort of angry and unthinking atheism that diminishes our standing in the eyes of others and makes our collective job far harder than it need be. It has no place in scientific naturalism.

[ Edited: 06 February 2010 07:27 AM by PLaClair ]
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Posted: 06 February 2010 09:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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PLaClair - 06 February 2010 07:24 AM
scepticeye - 04 February 2010 09:00 AM

First of all religion is not “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”. Religion is the blind faith in a God or Gods.

It is not for you to dictate the meaning of religion to the world. Whether you like it or not, or will accept it or not, the quoted statement expresses the meaning of religion to a great many people, including me. Transcendence can refer not to the supernatural but to our current abilities. For many of us, a God or gods have nothing to do with it.

Remarks like this boil my blood. This is rank dogmatism, a pure emotional reaction without the slightest intellectual merit. This is the sort of angry and unthinking atheism that diminishes our standing in the eyes of others and makes our collective job far harder than it need be. It has no place in scientific naturalism.

I think PLaClair is boiling his blood unncessarily….

The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Skepticeye I agree 100% with PLaClair that you should avoid categorical and hyperbolic statements (it was some throwaway comment of Hitchens that “everyone” has occasionally feelings of the transcendent which kicked off some other comments in this thread).  You can say that you don’t view religion as “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”—that you think of religions as primarily theistic. I think many people (but not all people) agree with this—but there are the Eastern religions {or “philosophies”) which are not really theistic. And bookstores tend to lump “religion and philosophy” together— Barnes & Noble puts the atheist books in the “philosophy” section {next to religion}.

However I agree with skepticeye that using the term “religion” for belief systems centered around supernatural explanations and Gods ,and also about non-theistic attempts to give life meaning really waters down the term—and surely PLaClair would agree that most people would find the term “atheistic religion” an oxymoron.  Though Marilyn Sewell who is interviewing Hitchens in this excellent interview seems to be of that “flavor”—she does not believe in any literal meaning to the Bible or to a literal interpretation of the Creed —but she considers herself a Christian.

The word “philosophy” is not a completely adequate substitute for “non-theistic religion” but if you say “nontheistic religious philosophy” it sort of covers it. 

I think it’s curious that PLaClair brings up “dogma” —a “non-dogmatic religion” seems to be basically a “nontheistic religous philosophy”

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Posted: 06 February 2010 01:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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PLaClair - 06 February 2010 07:24 AM

...It is not for you to dictate the meaning of religion to the world. ....

Over at Pharyngula PZ Myers is commenting on a talk by Kim Stanley Robinson at Duke—  Robinson is equating science with a new kind of religion, explaining the reasoning, and PZ disagrees…

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Posted: 06 February 2010 04:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Jackson, it does not water it down for me but on the contrary enlivens it and makes it meaningful. I am far from alone in this.

In essence, we are discussing two different ways of approaching religion. One is to reject the entire enterprise, which I believe can only have the effect of marginalizing us to no good end or purpose. The other is to recognize that religion arises out of human desire, address the ways in which it has gone wrong and support those aspects of it that are right. Einstein spoke to this, among many others.

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Posted: 06 February 2010 05:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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PLaClair - 06 February 2010 04:00 PM

Jackson, it does not water it down for me but on the contrary enlivens it and makes it meaningful. I am far from alone in this.

In essence, we are discussing two different ways of approaching religion. One is to reject the entire enterprise, which I believe can only have the effect of marginalizing us to no good end or purpose. The other is to recognize that religion arises out of human desire, address the ways in which it has gone wrong and support those aspects of it that are right. Einstein spoke to this, among many others.

I agree with you that religion currently serves an important social purpose which is why folks can go to church and basically substitute a metaphorical understanding of the Bible and by cherry-picking the ethics keep it relevant to their own life.  I agree with your concern that this social purpose can be met with a non-theistic non-dogmatic ‘religion’—although using the term ‘religion’ still seems a little squirrelly to me.

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Posted: 06 February 2010 07:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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PLaClair - 06 February 2010 07:24 AM
scepticeye - 04 February 2010 09:00 AM

First of all religion is not “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”. Religion is the blind faith in a God or Gods.

It is not for you to dictate the meaning of religion to the world. Whether you like it or not, or will accept it or not, the quoted statement expresses the meaning of religion to a great many people, including me. Transcendence can refer not to the supernatural but to our current abilities. For many of us, a God or gods have nothing to do with it.

I dictate nothing. I set the facts straight and your confusion is evident. Religion is about blind faith in a God, a superhuman power entity. If you can’t accept that then you have a problem either with the English language or with religion itself. Some religions may put more emphasis on God(s) than others but they all involve Gods in one way or another.

Remarks like this boil my blood. This is rank dogmatism, a pure emotional reaction without the slightest intellectual merit. This is the sort of angry and unthinking atheism that diminishes our standing in the eyes of others and makes our collective job far harder than it need be. It has no place in scientific naturalism.

On the contrary my response is based wholly on the meaning of language and the meaning of ‘religion’. Your emotional response is unmerited and your use of the word ‘dogma’ is also wholly unmerited and unjustified. Your reference to anger is also quite ridiculous. My response was calm and clear, nothing more and nothing less. You refer to the collective ‘us’ yet you are appear for all intents and purposes to be religious. I am an atheist and hence do not belong to the ‘us’ to which you refer.

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Posted: 06 February 2010 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Jackson - 06 February 2010 09:18 AM

Skepticeye I agree 100% with PLaClair that you should avoid categorical and hyperbolic statements (it was some throwaway comment of Hitchens that “everyone” has occasionally feelings of the transcendent which kicked off some other comments in this thread).  You can say that you don’t view religion as “the quest for the transcendent and the effort to understand the meaning of the numinous”—that you think of religions as primarily theistic. I think many people (but not all people) agree with this—but there are the Eastern religions {or “philosophies”) which are not really theistic. And bookstores tend to lump “religion and philosophy” together— Barnes & Noble puts the atheist books in the “philosophy” section {next to religion}.

Words have meaning. Religion has meaning. Religion is is the blind faith in a God or Gods. Nothing more and nothing less. Trying to stretch it and twist it to encompass more than it is is to eliminate the meaning and value of any of the words we want to use to discuss the issues.

However I agree with skepticeye that using the term “religion” for belief systems centered around supernatural explanations and Gods ,and also about non-theistic attempts to give life meaning really waters down the term—and surely PLaClair would agree that most people would find the term “atheistic religion” an oxymoron.  Though Marilyn Sewell who is interviewing Hitchens in this excellent interview seems to be of that “flavor”—she does not believe in any literal meaning to the Bible or to a literal interpretation of the Creed —but she considers herself a Christian.

She is clearly a member of the terminally confused and cowardly club.

The word “philosophy” is not a completely adequate substitute for “non-theistic religion” but if you say “nontheistic religious philosophy” it sort of covers it.

You can say what you like but it doesn’t make the term or any terms like it any less nonsensical imho.

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