In conversation: Christopher Hitchens - Macleans.ca

In conversation: Christopher Hitchens

On his Jewish grandmother, his atheism, his writing—and facing his own mortality

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Photography by Tom Sandler

The 61-year-old author and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens is one of the most popular, eloquent and contrarian public intellectuals of our time. His book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, assailed the reputation and work of the Catholic nun and icon, as his later The Case Against Henry Kissinger did Richard Nixon’s former secretary of state. His book God is Not Great has become necessary reading for atheists everywhere and was the reason Hitchens visited Toronto recently to challenge the former British prime minister and converted Catholic Tony Blair in a Munk debate with the proposition “Be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world,” which was broadcast globally. Hitchens, “Hitch” to his friends, won, taking 68 per cent of the vote—and this, despite being gravely ill with cancer that was diagnosed in the spring. His most recent book is Hitch-22: A Memoir.

Q: It seems to me there’s an essential distinction to be made between faith and religion that I don’t think Tony Blair was ever making.
A: I think there is. I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen—in other words, the supernatural or supervising deity, presence, force who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation. If that’s not in your mind, then I don’t think you’re really a religious person at all. I mean, you couldn’t have told from anything Blair said that he was a Catholic. He didn’t rise to any of my baits about the Vicar of Christ, none of that, and none of his liberation charity theology type of mush actually requires transubstantiation—the real presence of Christ in the mass—or all of the things you have to believe if you are a Catholic.

Q: Did you expect, when you published God is Not Great, that defending it would become such a job? I’ve heard you referred to as the poster boy of atheism.
A:
I hate that! But I don’t ever get tired of it because it’s the most interesting subject. It’s the original subject, including the first written texts, really. Religion is what we had before we had philosophy and before we had cosmology and medical care and all kinds of things. You can’t get tired of an argument that’s that extensive.

Q: I wonder if you become impatient with having to argue such abstracted ideas of faith—for instance, as happened during the debate, about the impulse to be good as if it was solely a religious quality—when, as you pointed out, so much that is inimical about religions lies in their differences.
A:
Well, it can be a bit like punching air, as can dealing with the argument from charity. If in a seminar you were to argue that I’ve committed a well-known fallacy by not deriving my conclusions from my premises and I reply, “You don’t know what you’re on about, I’ve just given 10 bucks to a homeless person,” my answer wouldn’t be accepted. But if you’re a religious person, it’s a fantastic counter-argument. It’s the special permission they expect to be granted to talk nonsense.

Q: It was good to hear you make the feminist point that the short cut to alleviating poverty is through elevating the status of women. Is that something you insist on?
A:
Well, I do because it doesn’t take very long for a new Catholic, the fresh Catholic convert, to bring up either charity or the example of Mother Teresa, which is usually thought of as an automatic winning point. And this was odd, because I thought possibly Blair had read my little book on Mother Teresa and it’s in the argument over her that I’ve made the point most often, because her teachings and entire lifetime of work was exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d ever spent the money she raised on charity—which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway. So I’m quite used to the Mother Teresa argument. And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion—and not just a monotheistic one—that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

Q: Is what you describe as the “numinous,” the “transcendent” or, in extreme cases, the “ecstatic” a necessary position you had to work out to find some way of accounting for the mysterious?
A:
Yes, because what one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know. Ever since one first started discussing the existence of God in the dormitory at school, you would hear people saying sincerely, “Well, you know, there’s got to be something more than just all this.” Clearly such thinking does not come from nowhere, it comes from people lying awake and having perhaps strange thoughts they cannot deal with, or emotional experiences they hadn’t been able to predict, or moments where you feel that there’s something larger than yourself—of which love is a pretty good test. We aren’t a particularly rational species, we look for patterns and we find them much too easily. It’s good that we look, but we’re very afraid, easily scared, terrified of death, and often we are very stirred without quite knowing why. Some fairly banal examples, I suppose, are landscape and music in combination, or alone; love in combination with either of these; or perhaps looking at the vault of heaven, as Hamlet would have put it—at the “fretted gold” of the sky at night. Cataclysmic events, great impressive storms, earthquakes, all of this makes one feel that actually we’re not just primates on a rock, though in fact such phenomena are completely compatible with the view that we’re primates on a rock. What I think would be nice is if people realized, for example, that a lot of devotional music is actually written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example. The effect that the Parthenon has on me is of the numinous and the transcendent, but it’s not religion.

Q: You must have taken part in a Passover Seder sometime.
A:
Indeed.

Q: I’m glad. I believe that everything in Jewish culture from humour to scepticism can be explained especially by the moment in this meal in which the rabbi or the person at the head of the table is obliged to answer the question, “Why is this night different from any other night?” and that he must do so until each of the four sons is convinced or their eyes are heavy with sleep. I’ve always been affected by this idea that an answer can be different according to needs. Is it a contradiction for me to be an atheist but also to feel that this is at least a good moment for understanding a culture?
A:
Not at all, because I think the Jewish Seder is one of the most interesting survivals of the Hellenistic period in Jerusalem when Jews, before the big restoration of orthodoxy by the Maccabees, were calling their sons Alexander, as a lot of them still do, and had adopted the Platonic symposium and would lie on couches. One of the questions of the night is, “Why do we recline?” They drink alcohol, they ask questions, and the young ones are supposed to take that leading role. It’s all taken from the Greek—and it was bound to lead to dissent. There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason. Leo Strauss thought that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wasn’t a believer but that he just dressed himself up in that way. So the great tragedy for me is the fact that Hellenistic Jewry was defeated. That’s what’s celebrated at Hanukkah and that’s why I hate Hanukkah. The Hellenistic influence was defeated and the old sacrifices and circumcisions were brought back.

Q: Well, the things I remember about Passover from the time I was a little kid were the philosophical points being made—the arguments, the commentary.
A:
It’s a good start. I’ve not only been to one or two, but we usually try and give one if we’re not invited, just for the children.

Q: In your memoir, Hitch-22, you describe how you learned from your brother Peter that you had a Jewish grandmother, a fact your mother Yvonne wanted kept secret and of which you and your father were unaware. Do you think you can be shaped by a story you don’t know?
A:
Well, it would depend on how much of a ton of bricks it was hitting you. If I’d had no interest at all in the question before that moment, I don’t really know. After all, a lot of people who are, if you like, however we want to put it, authentically 100 per cent Jewish—who’ve always known—seem to treat it not exactly as a matter of indifference, but very nearly, usually for liberal-ish reasons. But I’d always thought that Judaism was a great subject. I think part of having been a Marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive. I took it personally in the way that one does something obscene—perhaps because anti-Semitism is something so anti-intellectual and, in a horrible way, pseudo-intellectual. It’s quasi-theoretical, a lot of it, and there’s something completely tainted and hateful about it, which I hope I would have felt anyway. Someone like Martin [Amis], for example, certainly does without any skin in the game. I hate the idea one would be thinking with—what, one’s blood—but the sentiment was there and some of it may well have come from things I had overheard from my mum—I never call her mum, why am I doing that?—from my mother when I was small. Maybe it stayed with me without my knowing, that could be. Or, in other words, perhaps it was something that, when I found out, in a strange way I had known all along.

Q: Did you feel any responsibility, almost as a scientist would, to revise what you’d said or who you’d been in light of what must have been, objectively, such an interesting revelation?
A:
I did make haste to go and see my grandmother, who was still lucid then, and question her as far as I could about where we were from and what it had been like for her. That was fascinating but all rather a conventional script, actually—Poland, millinery and dentistry, low-level-but-not-horrible prejudice, the pressure to change their name. They all assimilated quite fast and there was minimal upkeep of the ritual—nothing very exciting, actually. It didn’t change my attitude to the texts, and politically and ideologically, no, because almost all the great critics of religion have been Jewish. My attitude toward Zionism had always been—and I’m sure always would have been—that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Q: Do you consider anti-Semitism a religious phenomenon?
A:
Yes, and this is where Tony Blair would make a point that I would agree with because he would say if you got rid of religion you still wouldn’t get rid of anti-Semitism. I’m sure that’s true, but the reason for its virulence is religious. As I say in my book, there were no Ukrainians at the Crucifixion, there were no Armenians, there were no druids. If the events as described took place at all—and I think that something like that probably did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy—then the Romans did it but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant.” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible. And still, most of them, in their hearts, haven’t really taken that back. It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the Messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the Prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for, really to meet him, and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs. And they still, most of them, haven’t really in their hearts taken that back. It’s not going to be forgotten. Blair, in a banal sense, would be right about this—without religion there would still be anti-Semitism, I’m sure, but its roots are definitely religious.

Q: When did your love of speaking well begin?
A:
It was partly when I was at school. I wasn’t going to make a name for myself on a playing field, but I was not bad in the classroom. I was interested in current affairs and there was a debating society, and I thought, “I’d like to do that.” At that time, also, I was prone to stutter and I was small and quite shy and I developed a stammer. That was acutely embarrassing to me, and I thought I might cure it if I forced myself to speak in public. As a writer, I don’t have musical capacity but, in compensation, I am a good reader and I talk and I think better than I write. I remember when I was working for the New Statesman, my test of a good article was how strongly it made the case, was it a good polemic, would it strengthen the left, essentially. Anyway, we were at some dinner somewhere in north London and Simon Hoggart, who was working for the Guardian then, said to me, “Liked your piece in the Statesman this week,” and I said, “Thank you.” And he said, “But I thought it was a bit dry, it was a bit dull—good argument and everything, and you made your case very well, but?.?.?.?” And I bridled a little bit—well, quite a lot, in fact—and said, “What are you talking about?” And very mildly and disarmingly he said, “No, no, no. Just relax. It’s so much more fun hearing you talk than reading you. Why don’t you try and write more as you speak?” I couldn’t forget what he said and it’s worked on me. And now, really, the pleasure of writing is as if to consider myself trying to write a letter to an intelligent or amusing friend.

Q: What has your illness done for you, if I may put it that way?
A:
Yes, you can. Well—and he’s always misquoted about this, he was talking about something else completely—but as Dr. [Samuel] Johnson famously said of the death penalty, it concentrates your mind. It does do that. But then, I’d like to think, mine was fairly concentrated anyway. Mostly, the thoughts that it sparks are ones that I think people in their early sixties have in any case—you know, “Where did all the time go?” and “What have I done with my life?”—but these have been hugely alleviated for me by the number of people who have written to me to say, “Don’t worry, you haven’t. You did this or that for me. I’m here to prove it.” I really have had so much more than I expected, and certainly more than I deserve, but it’s coincided with a very active period in my life, and a very satisfying one, and that’s both a nice thought and a very bitter one because you think, “Well, I’ve got to the point I wanted to get to, and I could claim I’ve worked bloody hard to do it, and here I was looking forward to some good sixties.” I really didn’t want more than that—a decade, basically, of dividend. It’s not that I would stop investing but I’d, you know, cash out a bit. And now I’m not going to get that, I don’t think—well, no, I’m not, because even if I do have them they won’t be carefree years in any sense. At best, the sickness will always be at bay. So I won’t get that, and of course this is exactly the period where my children are at their most intriguing and so, yes, that’s very bitter. To some extent, I can be jaunty on my own behalf, or phlegmatic, whatever you want to call it, and very occasionally a little bit more stoical than I feel—I can be those things, but not for them.

Q: After the debate, I heard one of your fans say, “Hitchens’s mind is the best argument for God.” His partner replied, “No, it’s an argument for science.”
A:
Well, they’re both wrong, I think.