Man vs. God

December 2, 2007

Chain-smoking in a crowd is no way to make yourself popular, but the hundred or so people gathered for dinner at Hy's Encore on Hornby seem happy to forgive Christopher Hitchens his addiction to nicotine. The English-born columnist, journalist, and author is in town as part of the Salon Speakers Series; he'll talk and field questions about his bestselling nonfiction book God Is Not Great, a trenchant dissection of organized religion and an ardent espousal of atheism that has made many of the faithful apoplectic.

Controversy is Hitchens's stock in trade, and has been since he became a fixture in the pages of The Spectator, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The Atlantic, and at Slate online. A one-time Trotskyite (one of his books argued that Henry Kissinger ought to be tried as a war criminal), he now wears the garb of neoconservatism in his explication of the moral justification for the invasion of Iraq (he became an American citizen earlier this year). Defying easy classification, he moves deftly through the world and its geopolitical complexities, following his journalist's nose and his formidable mind. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his second wife and their two teenaged children (he has a grown daughter with his first). Hitchens is dauntingly prolific, producing more substantial work in a month than many journalists do in a year. Asked if he has a photographic memory, he replies: "A retentive one, which has served me well-a good memory is one that forgets what doesn't need to be remembered." Does he recall much of what he's read? "I suppose so," he says, and at the mention of Evelyn Waugh a few minutes later he recites verbatim several hilarious paragraphs from Waugh's Fleet Street novel Scoop, to which he contributed the preface for a new Penguin edition.

Over dessert, Peter Brown, founder of Canaccord Capital (who put up Hitchens's $30,000 fee), laments the lack of corporate sponsorship in Vancouver for events aimed at raising the level of discourse in the city. After an introduction by Patricia Graham, editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Sun, the atheist takes the floor. Fuelled by endless Rothman's and double scotches, he delivers a dazzling, 40-minute history of human consciousness and the role religion has played in it. The thesis of his book (recently named a finalist for the National Book Award in the U.S.) is that religion arose alongside mankind's dawning awareness of mortality, without which we would have no need of it.

Religion, he writes, is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." The Bible, he says, contains a warrant "for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre." The Koran is no better, providing justification for, among many indefensible things, the fatwa that Muslim leaders pronounced on Hitchens's friend Salman Rushdie as punishment for Rushdie's anti-Islamic writings. The religious education of young people Hitchens likens to child abuse. Contemporary sexism and repression he lays at the door of ancient religious beliefs. Not even Gandhi or the Dalai Lama escapes his scalding gaze. Provocative? Certainly. Over the top? Perhaps. But his easy erudition, deft synthesizing, and oratorical gifts (he debated at Oxford) are spellbinding. This is one of the great public intellectuals of our day.

Hitchens fields questions. One prompts him to suggest that it is not God's love that's infinite, it's man's need for comfort and assurance and his capacity for self-delusion. Another has him reply that if we accept the notion of a creator of the cosmos, we must surely go on to ask who created the creator. Religion is man-made and was invented before science, he points out, and ought rightfully to be laid to rest by it. For those who would lament the loss of awe that believers feel in contemplation of their god, should they recognize the lunacy of their devotion, are not the findings of science more awe-inspiring than the rantings of the godly?

How about Mao, Lenin, and Hitler, asks Angus Reid, the pollster. Three of the most brutal tyrants, surely, yet none acting from the sort of religious conviction that Hitchens associates with history's most murderous exterminations. In fact, Hitchens replies, Hitler had his birthday celebrated from the pulpits of Germany's churches. As for Stalin's purges, he argues, they were not really secular at all since, as Orwell noted, a totalitarian state is a kind of theocracy.

And what of the idea, he's asked, that the U.S. is itself a kind of theocracy, that the concocted justifications for invasion and prayer-meeting breakfasts and God-bless-America attitude the Bush administration brings to its "democratization" of Iraq is yet another example of moral and legal transgression conducted on religious pretext?

"That's rubbish, and I'll have none of it," he says, heading off in search of more high-test refreshment and another cigarette, to sustained and enthusiastic applause.

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