On Hitchens’s Tone

One question that came up in a discussion of Christopher Hitchens’s book god is not Great was: Hitchens is blunt, brutal, and uncompromising. So who on earth is his target audience? Religious people won’t read past the first few pages, and the people who will finish it already agree with him. And is he really doing anyone any favors by being so loud and obnoxious?

Some of the standard answers were discussed at the meetup: it galvanizes the troops. Religious people will read it to know the enemy. He is a significant voice in the debate, and you can’t just ignore him; if you’re going to argue for God, you have to have some sort of reply to Hitchens.

But another answer occurred to me: like many atheists, I suspect, I held on to religion for quite a long time because I thought you were supposed to, because it didn’t occur to me that I could just opt out of the whole thing.

I think that if there had been someone like Hitchens around in the 80s when I was trying to find a religion I could live with, someone who was willing to just come out and say look, religion isn’t “flawed”, it isn’t “an approximation of truth”, it isn’t “flawed humans’ best effort to understand the transcendent”, it’s a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys and here’s why, then I would have jettisoned the whole thing more quickly.

Plus, let’s face it: iconoclasm can be fun. If you’ve ever played death metal or gotten a tattoo to annoy your parents, you understand this. I’m sure there are people who’ll read Hitchens simply because he’s one of those People You’re Not Supposed To Like. And they may come out with the attitude that yes, it’s okay to speak out against patent nonsense.

And the more people feel that way, the more religion’s armor against criticism erodes, and religion has to defend itself on its own merits. And we all know how that ends.

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3 Responses to On Hitchens’s Tone

  1. Eamon Knight says:

    Hitchens is the only one of the Four Horsemen I haven’t read. From reviews I’ve seen (including one in Free Inquiry), I probably won’t, as the impression I’ve got is that it’s long on polemics and short on rational argument. There’s a place for that, but I’m not the target audience, and I have way more books to read than I have time for.


  2. arensb says:

    Eamon Knight:
    There’s some truth to what you say. I had the pleasure of listening to the audio book of god is not Great, read by the author, on a road trip. I remember thinking that the main thing I liked about it is boy, can that man turn a sentence. Sometimes, it’s a joy to read (or listen to) a well-crafted flame. And of course Hitchens has the right voice and accent to read his own material.

    He also knows a lot more about history than I do, or at least sounds like it. If what he says is true, then he does make a good case against religion, or at least adds stuff other than the usual Inquisition yadda yadda stuff we’ve all heard.


  3. I agree that Hitchens’ bellicose style is well suited to the religious discussion owing to the cultural baggage which comes along with that particular topic. And yet, it is always a good idea to proceed with caution when dealing with professional provocateurs like Hitchens or, for that matter, Gore Vidal, Noam Chompsky and Bill Buckley. The fact of the matter is that Hitchens has expressed some VERY UGLY VIEWS which I personally would never wish to be branded with. I understand that someone’s agreeing with him on the shortcomings of religious belief doesn’t necessitate their believing that Iraq had WMDs and was behind 9/11 but not everyone might be as nuanced in their understanding. Were I to use Hitchen’s material I would probably have make clear how vehemently I disagree with him on certain things first and I would alway be sure to double check that he has his facts straight as his judgement has been very questionable on a number of occasions in my opinion.


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