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Hitchens Delivers Scathing Opprobrium

Published by marco on

The article Just one question (The Guardian) features a whole bunch of British people I’ve never heard of, half of them asking pithy questions, allowing the other half to offer equally pithy—and often, far lengthier—answers. “Julia Neuberger, rabbi and Lib Dem peer”, appearing about ¾ of the way down the list, though it a good idea to ask Christopher Hitchens an insipid question that he’d been asked dozens of times before. Whatever you may think of Hitchens either personally or professionally, this is the kind of moment for which he was made.

Here’s the question in its less-than-nuanced entirety:

“Why are you so angry about religion? Don’t you think your very fervour − and certainty − make you just like the religious extremists you profess to despise. And where’s the room for doubt in your analysis?”

I am oh-so-curious as to whether she thought—even for a moment—that he might have answered, respectively, “abused as a child”, “yes” and “nowhere” and left it at that. Though the idea may have fleetingly occurred, being Hitchens, he opted for the far-more-amusing response partially cited below. He leads with a lovely citation:

“Any view of the world which does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory or, at worst, an ideology. If it is either of the first two, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science.”
Anthony Grayling (Can an Atheist be a Fundamentalist?)

He goes on to illustrate with an example:

“The whole analytical method of humanist materialism is based on scepticism. We take nothing on faith. Imagine what a fortune could be made by a palaeontologist who unearthed human bones and dinosaur bones in the same layer of sediment. I will bet my house that this discovery will not be made, but my bet is not entirely, or at all, an article of belief. It is, rather, a conviction based on the study of evidence.”

The emphasized passage above is the core of the answer: the difference between fundamentalists and (good) scientists lies in the scientists’ willingness to assimilate new information and to base convictions on evidence rather than faith. A fundamentalist will continue to believe that which he or she believes regardless of conflicting evidence. This is not to say that logical conclusions drawn from a preponderance of evidence are always right and faith-based conclusions always wrong, but that the methodologies differ and the first methodology has a much stronger track record in reality.

The citation is spot-on, the reasoning is strong and succinct, but it just wouldn’t be Hitchens if there wasn’t a personally insulting zinger in there somewhere, which brings us to the last paragraph:

“As to the manner in which I express myself, it rather depends on the antagonist. I’m normally renowned for my patience and good humour, but I admit to being easily bored and, when I come up against, say, a self-righteous rabbi, can be tempted to succumb to sarcasm. I think that may be where your confusion arises. Oh, and I do not “profess” to despise religious extremists. I really do despise them. (emphasis added)”

Arrogant to some, snide to nearly all, but his stern redaction of her question to remove the politically-correct softening qualifier “profess” is completely and entirely justified and gives this author, at least, a warm and fuzzy feeling.