Editorial introduction

Below is reproduced, with permission from the Estate of Christopher Hitchens (to whom I express my gratitude), the final chapter of Hitchens’s classic freethinking text god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.*

Today, as much as when that book was published in 2007, there is a need for a new Enlightenment. Two of this chapter’s themes—the danger and instability of Iranian theocracy and the threat posed to free speech by Islamic fanatics—remain very obviously and very unfortunately relevant. But the real power of the below, I think, is to be found in these words: ‘[I]t is better and healthier for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.’ Yes, we remain stuck in prehistory, all right. But if anything can help us to transcend our primitivism, it is the work of Christopher Hitchens. And now from his company I shall delay you no longer.

~ Daniel James Sharp, Editor of the Freethinker

“The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.” – GOTTHOLD LESSING, ANTI-GOEZE (1778)

“The Messiah Is Not Coming—and He’s Not Even Going to Call!” – ISRAELI HIT TUNE IN 2001

The great Lessing put it very mildly in the course of his exchange of polemics with the fundamentalist preacher Goeze. And his becoming modesty made it seem as if he had, or could have, a choice in the matter. In point of fact, we do not have the option of “choosing” absolute truth, or faith. We only have the right to say, of those who do claim to know the truth of revelation, that they are deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive—or to intimidate—others. Of course, it is better and healthier for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything. Whereas religions, wittily defined by Simon Blackburn in his study of Plato’s Republic, are merely “fossilized philosophies,” or philosophy with the questions left out. To “choose” dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.

Thomas Aquinas once wrote a document on the Trinity and, modestly regarding it as one of his more finely polished efforts, laid it on the altar at Notre Dame so that god himself could scrutinize the work and perhaps favor “the Angelic doctor” with an opinion. (Aquinas here committed the same mistake as those who made nuns in convents cover their baths with canvas during ablutions: it was felt that god’s gaze would be deflected from the undraped female forms by such a modest device, but forgotten that he could supposedly “see” anything, anywhere, at any time by virtue of his omniscience and omnipresence, and further forgotten that he could undoubtedly “see” through the walls and ceilings of the nunnery before being baffled by the canvas shield. One supposes that the nuns were actually being prevented from peering at their own bodies, or rather at one another’s.)

However that may be, Aquinas later found that god indeed had given his treatise a good review—he being the only author ever to have claimed this distinction—and was discovered by awed monks and novices to be blissfully levitating around the interior of the cathedral. Rest assured that we have eyewitnesses for this event.

On a certain day in the spring of 2006, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, accompanied by his cabinet, made a procession to the site of a well between the capital city of Tehran and the holy city of Qum. This is said to be the cistern where the Twelfth or “occulted” or “hidden” Imam took refuge in the year 873, at the age of five, never to be seen again until his long-awaited and beseeched reappearance will astonish and redeem the world. On arrival, Ahmadinejad took a scroll of paper and thrust it down the aperture, so as to update the occulted one on Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission and the enrichment of uranium. One might have thought that the imam could keep abreast of these developments wherever he was, but it had in some way to be the well that acted as his dead-letter box. One might add that President Ahmadinejad had recently returned from the United Nations, where he had given a speech that was much covered on both radio and television as well as viewed by a large “live” audience. On his return to Iran, however, he told his supporters that he had been suffused with a clear green light—green being the preferred color of Islam—all throughout his remarks, and that the emanations of this divine light had kept everybody in the General Assembly quite silent and still. Private to him as this phenomenon was—it appears to have been felt by him alone—he took it as a further sign of the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, not so say a further endorsement of his ambition to see the Islamic Republic of Iran, sunk as it was in beggary and repression and stagnation and corruption, as nonetheless a nuclear power. But like Aquinas, he did not trust the Twelfth or “hidden” Imam to be able to scan a document unless it was put, as it were, right in front of him.

Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.

Having often watched Shia ceremonies and processions, I was not surprised to learn that they are partly borrowed, in their form and liturgy, from Catholicism. Twelve imams, one of them now “in occultation” and awaiting reappearance or reawakening. A frenzied cult of martyrdom, especially over the agonizing death of Hussein, who was forsaken and betrayed on the arid and bitter plains of Karbala. Processions of flagellants and self-mortifiers, awash in grief and guilt at the way in which their sacrificed leader had been abandoned. The masochistic Shia holiday of Ashura bears the strongest resemblances to the sort of Semana Santa, or “Holy Week,” in which the cowls and crosses and hoods and torches are borne through the streets of Spain. Yet again it is demonstrated that monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.

Another way of putting this is to say that, as I write, a version of the Inquisition is about to lay hands on a nuclear weapon. Under the stultified rule of religion, the great and inventive and sophisticated civilization of Persia has been steadily losing its pulse. Its writers and artists and intellectuals are mainly in exile or stifled by censorship; its women are chattel and sexual prey; its young people are mostly half-educated and without employment. After a quarter century of theocracy, Iran still exports the very things it exported when the theocrats took over—pistachio nuts and rugs. Modernity and technology have passed it by, save for the one achievement of nuclearization.

This puts the confrontation between faith and civilization on a whole new footing. Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies would contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. Bad enough as this was, it became worse on September 11, 2001, when from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism—the high-rise building and the jet aircraft—and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as a negation.

This book has been about the oldest argument in human history, but almost every week that I was engaged in writing it, I was forced to break off and take part in the argument as it was actually continuing. These arguments tended to take ugly forms: I was not so often leaving my desk to go and debate with some skillful old Jesuit at Georgetown, but rather hurrying out to show solidarity at the embassy of Denmark, a small democratic country in northern Europe whose other embassies were going up in smoke because of the appearance of a few caricatures in a newspaper in Copenhagen. This last confrontation was an especially depressing one. Islamic mobs were violating diplomatic immunity and issuing death threats against civilians, yet the response from His Holiness the Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury was to condemn—the cartoons! In my own profession, there was a rush to see who could capitulate the fastest, by reporting on the disputed images without actually showing them. And this at a time when the mass media has become almost exclusively picture-driven. Euphemistic noises were made about the need to show “respect,” but I know quite a number of the editors concerned and can say for a certainty that the chief motive for “restraint” was simple fear. In other words, a handful of religious bullies and bigmouths could, so to speak, outvote the tradition of free expression in its Western heartland. And in the year 2006, at that! To the ignoble motive of fear one must add the morally lazy practice of relativism: no group of nonreligious people threatening and practicing violence would have been granted such an easy victory, or had their excuses—not that they offered any of their own—made for them.

Then again, on another day, one might open the newspaper to read that the largest study of prayer ever undertaken had discovered yet again that there was no correlation of any kind between “intercessory” prayer and the recovery of patients. (Well, perhaps some correlation: patients who knew that prayers were being said for them had more post-operative complications than those who did not, though I would not argue that this proved anything.) Elsewhere, a group of dedicated and patient scientists had located, in a remote part of the Canadian Arctic, several skeletons of a large fish that, 375 million years ago, exhibited the precursor features of digits, proto-wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The Tiktaalik, named at the suggestion of the local Nunavut people, joins the Archaeopteryx, a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds, as one of the long-sought so-called missing links that are helping us to enlighten ourselves about our true nature. Meanwhile, the hoarse proponents of “intelligent design” would be laying siege to yet another school board, demanding that tripe be taught to children. In my mind, these contrasting events began to take on the characteristics of a race: a tiny step forward by scholarship and reason; a huge menacing lurch forward by the forces of barbarism—the people who know they are right and who wish to instate, as Robert Lowell once phrased it in another context, “a reign of piety and iron.”

Religion even boasts a special branch of itself, devoted to the study of the end. It calls itself “eschatology,” and broods incessantly on the passing away of all earthly things. This death cult refuses to abate, even though we have every reason to think that “earthly things” are all that we have, or are ever going to have. Yet in our hands and within our view is a whole universe of discovery and clarification, which is a pleasure to study in itself, gives the average person access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed, and offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in peaceful exchange between different cultures. Yet millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice. The late Stephen Jay Gould generously wrote that science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria.” They most certainly do not overlap, but this does not mean that they are not antagonistic.

Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman.

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a world-view, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made. Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and obstruction, impotence or outright reaction, and, given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two. Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitute our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.” It is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in a painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit.

Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.

However, only the most naive utopian can believe that this new humane civilization will develop, like some dream of “progress,” in a straight line. We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. “Know yourself,” said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind for this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.

*Note that, when you use this link to purchase the book, we earn from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate.

Further reading

Christopher Hitchens and the long afterlife of Thomas Paine, by Daniel James Sharp

Christopher Hitchens and the value of heterodoxy, by Matt Johnson

What has Christianity to do with Western values? by Nick Cohen

Against the ‘New Theism’, by Daniel James Sharp

Atheism, secularism, humanism, by Anthony Grayling

The ‘Women’s Revolution’: from two activists in Iran, by Rastine Mortad and Sadaf Sepiddasht

‘Words are the only victors’ – Salman Rushdie’s ‘Victory City’, reviewed, by Daniel James Sharp

The Satanic Verses; free speech in the Freethinker, by Emma Park

The Enlightenment and the making of modernity, by Piers Benn

Secularism and the struggle for free speech, by Stephen Evans

Do we need God to defend civilisation? by Adam Wakeling

The rhythm of Tom Paine’s bones, by Eoin Carter

Books From Bob’s Library #1: Introduction and Thomas Paine’s ‘The Age of Reason’, by Bob Forder

New Atheism, New Theism, and a defence of cultural Christianity, by Jack Stacey

‘An animal is a description of ancient worlds’: interview with Richard Dawkins, by Emma Park

‘We are at a threshold right now’: Lawrence Krauss on science, atheism, religion, and the crisis of ‘wokeism’ in science, interview by Daniel James Sharp

Consciousness, free will and meaning in a Darwinian universe: interview with Daniel C. Dennett, by Daniel James Sharp

‘Nature is super enough, thank you very much!’: interview with Frank Turner, by Daniel James Sharp

How three media revolutions transformed the history of atheism, by Nathan Alexander

Quebec’s French-style secularism: history and enduring value, by Mathew Giagnorio

How laïcité can save secularism, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

The case of Richard Dawkins: cultural affiliation with a religious community does not contradict atheism, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Religion and the Arab-Israeli conflict, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

The need to rekindle irreverence for Islam in Muslim thought, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Britain’s blasphemy heritage, by David Nash

Secularism is a feminist issue, by Megan Manson

The hijab is the wrong symbol to represent women, by Khadija Khan

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