Taking on God, again

According to author Christopher Hitchens, people are not as religious as we might think... but those who are must be convinced that it does more harm than good

hitchens 88 224 (photo credit: )
hitchens 88 224
(photo credit: )
Christopher Hitchens believes it is time to rid people of several notions. Mark Twain did not believe in God, Americans are not uncritically devout and an atheist can be elected president of the United States. In fact, the extent of religion's hold on people, the British-born author, journalist and provocateur says, has been vastly exaggerated. Despite polls that suggest differently, people are not as religious as many think, he says. "I knew that the zeitgeist of religion was changing, that the parties of God would... (anger people) in their various forms: Republican or Shiite," Hitchens says. "But I had, I think, underestimated how much of this there was." He was referring, in part, to the comments he received following the April release of his best seller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he lambasts religion as illogical and dangerous, and blames believers for centuries of war, persecutions and other ills. A new anthology published earlier this month, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, continues to press the case. Witty and feisty, the Oxford-educated Hitchens is known for his contentious stances that make him difficult to typecast. A former Trotskyist who published regularly in British and American left-wing publications, he has bitterly criticized Mother Teresa - he testified against her before Vatican officials when then-Pope John Paul II prepared to beatify the nun - former President Clinton and former national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Hitchens separated from the political left shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks following a series of disagreements. Among other things, he famously supported the war in Iraq and favored Clinton's impeachment. The man's success is obvious. Over a recent lunch at a midtown hotel, the 58-year-old Hitchens explained his thinking. He sipped whiskey, comfortable in black tie hours before the reception for the National Book Awards. (He became a US citizen and eligible for the prize earlier this year, and was a finalist in the nonfiction category for God is not Great. He did not win.) With so many engagements between lunch and dinner, he had no time to change, and made a big production of a missing button on his shirt as his editor bent over him and struggled to push through a shirt stud. Fashion emergencies aside, the author will not be distracted from his quest to convince the world that religion does more harm than good, and just doesn't make sense. "Just because we are on the winning side of this doesn't mean we can just relax," Hitchens said. The anthology presents the writings of philosophers, scientists, writers and thinkers in support of his side of the great God debate. The book includes Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, George Eliot, Anatole France, Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, and some never before published pieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book was in the top 20 of The New York Times list of best sellers for paperback nonfiction, and on the extended best-seller list of Book Sense, a national association of independent booksellers. "The fact that Christopher Hitchens is the editor, that certainly has an impact on how well it is selling, and it is selling very well," Donavin Bennes, a religion book buyer for Borders Group Inc., said. "Obviously, he's a very provocative writer ... and there's a definite interest in the topic." Hitchens says he wants The Portable Atheist to be a resource "for the embattled person in some case of a small town idiocy, persecution or attempted stultification of children." He referred to the federal court ruling in 2005 that banned the Dover, Pennsylvania, public school district from teaching the concept of "intelligent design" as part of a science class. The judge had said that the theory, which argues that an intelligent supernatural force explains the emergence of complex life forms, was creationism in disguise. The Portable Atheist took a mere few weeks to assemble. The contributors are many and varied, and part of Hitchens' mission was to break the idea that atheism goes hand-in-hand with liberal politics. "There are quite a lot of good conservatives and free marketeers and so on who think Christianity, in particular, is servile and irrational," Hitchens says. But Christianity is not his only target. "We take on Islam head on," he says. The longest of all the contributions - 61 pages - is an attack against the Quran by Ibn Warraq, a former Muslim scholar who hides his true identity. "Many people, including humanists and agnostics, in this country are very reluctant to criticize Islam because they think it is the religion of another people, and thus deserves respect on... cultural terms," Hitchens says. "And this is a sentimentality for which we have no patience." Hitchens also strives to prove that there is beauty in atheism - Mozart was almost certainly an atheist, the author says. "We may possibly come out with an atheist CD of nonbeliever musicians." He adds, as a warning, "I'm only half-joking."