God is Not Great: Chris Hitchens

We are not conceding to the faithful the idea that religion has an ethical basis.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was the 2007 recipient of the Foundation’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award. That award, a golden statuette depicting the legendary monarch, is reserved for public figures who engage in public dissent of religion, and tell it like it is,” like the child in the fairy tale.

This acceptance speech was delivered on Oct. 14, 2007, at the 30th annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, Madison, Wis.


By Christopher Hitchens

Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, comrades, friends, brothers, sisters, for coming. Thank you. Very generous introduction. Thank you for the FFRF freethought calendar. My birthday is the 13th of April, which is the same birthday as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Mr Jefferson. I took my oath at his memorial in Washington, swearing to–particularly, I wrote it in–uphold the separation of church and state as bodied forth in his letter as President, to the Baptists of Danbury in Connecticut, who were frightened of persecution. Frightened of persecution from who, by the way? The congregation of Danbury, Connecticut.

Anyway, as you well know–who doesn’t know that?–the reply that he gave said that there should ever be a wall of separation between church and state in this great republic, and I proudly affirmed as much, and I have been going around the South promulgating my new slogan in which I ask you to join me: Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall.

I do feel I might give you a brief report on my swing through the areas of piety. I guess it was lucky that in the first week, as I was in North Carolina, the carcass of Jerry Falwell was found unraptured, slumped on the floor of his mediocre-degree mill of an office in Virginia. And I was able to say–though they tried to bleep it on Hannity & Colmes–that had Falwell been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox. So good are things these days with YouTube, and other things my children can do and I cannot, that apparently I was lipread saying that, even though they bleeped it out. So it got said on the air anyway. So let’s not say that all the victories are on the wicked side.

But I didn’t expect that by the end of the summer, there would have been a bunch of letters published by the late woman arrogantly calling herself “Mother” Teresa–Agnes Bojaxhiu, elderly virgin of Macedonia, inflicting her hideous doctrines on the wretched of Bengal–saying that she couldn’t believe a word of it, either. I didn’t think she was one of us. If she couldn’t bring herself to believe it, then let’s, for heaven’s sake, extend the hat of compassion to her ourselves.

Now, one of the things I’ve learned in this process of debate and engagement with the faithful (and no one yet has said that I’ve lost one, although I don’t want to sound conceited), is that I’ve learned not to say some things that used to irritate me. I don’t say anymore, for example, why do they never come up with any new arguments? Because I heard myself saying that after a debate with a theologian one night in Georgetown. Well, they can’t come up with any arguments, can they? They’re stuck, if you like, with field arguments. They can say, by torturing themselves into a pretzel shape, “All right, come to think of it, it does look as if we got here as primates after 99.8% of all the other species ever created on earth became extinct. That only shows how clever God was to begin with.” This applies only to those I’ve debated who accept the theory of evolution by natural selection and who do understand a little bit of physics. It’s not much of an argument, is it? Actually, it doesn’t really count as an argument at all. It isn’t reasoning of any kind. It’s a sort of reverse engineering, but it is, as is often said of hypocrisy, the compliment that vice pays to virtue. It’s a tribute, in a sense, to the work that, had it been done earlier, would have meant there was no need for superstition in the first place.

The same with the Big Bang: after all, it’s an awesome cosmic event involving a great deal of heat and a great deal of light. In fact, Dinesh D’Souza, one of my best antagonists, a really believing serious Catholic, does say in his new book, What’s So Great About Christianity–a book that needs a question mark in its title but doesn’t have one–that come to think of it, Genesis, instead of negating the Big Bang, predicts it, because we used to laugh and say, “How could God create light and only then the sun and moon and stars?” Well, Big Bang answers that. So you see, it was always there all along, only we were too dumb to see it. Now I agree with Dinesh that that’s a nice try. But that’s as generous as I’m prepared to be.

No, what we have to do is grasp something right off and stop being the least bit apologetic about it ourselves. It is often conceded that though religion may be metaphysically false, and not even really metaphorically true, that its figures are those of legend and myth, and its miracles are fairy tales for scared children and all completely impossible to deny or refute–but nonetheless, it has an ethical basis. “These fairy tales at least teach children how to behave well.”

The beginning of the argument must be that we say this is not so. We are not conceding this to the faithful. Is it moral, for example, to tell children–to tell anybody–that their sins can be forgiven? Then, because of the human sacrifice in which they had no say–which if they had had any childish say, they would want it stopped, wouldn’t want to see it to happen–because of the hideous torture and death of someone 2,000 years ago, their personal responsibility is dissolved. All they need to do is to recognize the beauty of this human sacrifice, throw their sins on the scapegoat, and be forgiven.

That’s a positively immoral logic. I could, if I wanted to, offer to pay your debts. I’m not going to. But I could. If I liked you enough, I could do that. I could, if I really, really liked you enough, I suppose–there’s no system that allows it, but I could–offer to serve your term in prison for you, if I knew you enough, believed in you. We know of cases, in which Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is the most luminous, where someone will even take someone else’s place on the scaffold. They’ll do their suffering for them. They’ll pay their debts. But they can’t take away their responsibility. They can’t say their sins never occurred. It would be immoral to try.

So the very centerpiece of the main religion of these United States is something that is positively wicked. It’s insulting for us to be made to argue that we might be less ethical or moral because we don’t believe. It’s not enough for us to say, “Hey, you can be a good person and be an atheist.” Somebody at the convention of AAI the other day in Washington was quoted on television just before I was interviewed, saying, “Well, we’re good people, we’re just not God people.” No, no, nice try. Get off the apologetic, get off the defense. You can’t be a good person and a God person. You can’t be. Religion is the inculcation by coercion not just of irrationality but of immorality.

What is moral about vicarious redemption, the horrible doctrine I’ve just mentioned? What is moral about the mutilation of the genitals of children in the name of God? What is moral about that? The genital mutilation community is entirely theocratic. It should accept responsibility for what it advocates, and not say it’s teaching morality. What about the Muslim injunction that anyone wishing to change their religion, to become an apostate, must be killed?

Is it moral teaching to say that people who have second thoughts about faith must suffer the death penalty? I hardly think so. Is it moral for Orthodox Jews to greet every lovely day with thanking their maker for not making them a woman or a gentile–a goy? Is it moral for the women to have to say, “We thank God for making us the way we are”? Actually, that’s not in the least immoral, but there’s something somewhat fascist about it. It’s a form of sado-masochism, which, despite some of its advocates, I don’t think is good for you in the long run.

You’re told, to begin with, that you are a worm–a sinful, guilty, shrunken, miserable creature. The Quran says we’re made of a clot of blood; the bible says dust; the Jews say, “Thank God at least you’re not goy.” You begin with this abject masochism. You’re told that you’re responsible for sins that were committed before you were born that you couldn’t have influenced, that your only chance is to take part in a barbaric ritual of torture and death if you are to be free of this inherited burden. This is almost worse than race theory. But just because no one could be that abject for so long or forever, there’s a compensation offer. Well, the universe is designed with you in mind, and God has a plan for you. So from being a groveling worm, a clump of bloodclot or dust, you can go straight to the most errant self-centeredness: “Well, there’s a divine scheme and it has me in mind.” This is not right. This is bound to lead to bad behavior–psychically, physically, socially–and it always has, and it always will.

Is wish-thinking moral? I don’t think it’s moral at all to lie to children. When I’m meeting people of holy orders, I feel like I am meeting someone who is paid to lie to children. I don’t think that’s a moral calling or occupation, to tell children that they should be terrified of hell, or if they do a right action or if they avoid wrong actions as defined as inescapable, they might go to heaven. This is wicked. It’s ruined the childhoods of millions of children down the generations. We have some but not all of their memoirs. There’s certainly nobody in this room who doesn’t know somebody whose life was effectively wrecked by this.

And it has something else that’s not moral or defensible, which is an implicit appeal to the totalitarian. The origins of totalitarianism, our greatest enemy, lie in this. We’re told that we wouldn’t know a right from wrong action, wouldn’t be able to tell, let alone to perform one, if we were not already the property of a celestial dictator, whom we must love and fear at the same time.

Compulsory love is a pretty horrible idea. The fear that goes with it is of little more than the negation of that. Let me give you an instance of what I mean. I’ve been to all three of the “Axis of Evil” countries now; I’m the only writer who has. When I was a child and I was told about heaven and hell, I couldn’t form a picture of heaven, because I was told it would be a place of eternal praise, everlasting praise, and thanks all the time. Thanks and praise and thank you and I praise you again, forever, for doing what appears to come to you naturally, for having made me out of a clot of blood? Sounded like hell to me. Of hell, of course, a child can be given an awful picture and many, many children never get over it. But I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live like that, forever praising.

Well, now I’ve been to North Korea and I do know. The only duty or right of the half-starved citizen is to thank, for his or her handful of dirty rice every day, the dear leader who makes it possible. There is no other culture or films or plays or classes in school or programs on TV and the radio. They’re all about the same thing: you have to thank the dear leader. Would that that were enough. The dear leader is only the head of the party in the army in North Korea. He’s not the president. The president is his father, who’s been dead for 15 years. Did you know that? North Korea has a dead president. It’s a necrocracy. A thanatocracy. A mausolocracy. It’s a death cult, and you may have noticed it’s only one short of a trinity. And the son is the reincarnation of his father. Now I know what it would be like. And I wasn’t able, in the article I wrote, to begin to describe the horrific pointlessness and misery of what it was like to be in North Korea even for half a day. None of you can imagine it, but it’s what theocracy wants you to imagine and be grateful for. And I’ll add this: at least you can fucking die and get out of North Korea. It is the only way you can leave that hermetic nightmare. Not so in mortuism–when you die is when the totalitarianism really begins.

Now who wants this to be true? Who but someone servile and stupid and pathetic wants it to be true that they can be convicted of thought-crime at any minute of the day, or night as they’re sleeping, for thinking the wrong thing? Who wants to be always in debt to someone who never asked them if they wanted the loan in the first place? Who wants this? All of us who, as Americans, oppose the very idea of unfreedom and tyranny must say that this is where the resistance to totalitarianism really begins: By the repudiation of religion and by the defiance of theocracy. That’s where the battle for our values has to start. Religion abolishes obligation to live in truth, a very important part of our personal integrity. It caters to our worst solecism and our worst masochism simultaneously, plus denies us our self-respect.

On the betrayal, so to say, I’ve evolved three challenges. Well, two, really. One takes a dual form. On this matter of ethics and morality, I say to every cleric I’ve debated with, and all of their audiences–and I’ve said it on the Christianity Today website now, countless TV and radio shows, in print hundreds of times, on public platforms dozens of times, and I’ve not yet had an answer: If you say that morality can only be derived from a supernatural authority/dictatorship, then you must be able to name for me an ethical statement made or ethical action performed by a believer that could not have been performed by a nonbeliever, by an infidel, that would be forbidden to them, unavailable, unaccessible. Can you do it? They haven’t yet. The challenge has been out for quite a long time.

Whereas if I can just mention my corollary, if I ask any audience member, not just this one, any audience–I did it in Georgetown University, one of the headquarters of the Catholic faith in this country, night before last–can they think of a wicked action performed that could only have been performed in the name of God or other divine instruction? No one has any hesitation in recognizing or identifying an example. Now as long as this remains the case, it is they who have to do the explaining, they who owe the accounting, they who owe the apology and not us, and we must be plain on it.

I have a third challenge, which is to those who say–the president is one of them–that in these matters that can’t yet be decided where we come from, our cosmos, our species, we should teach the argument, share equal time. The president is too stupid to know that there isn’t really an argument about this anymore. There used to be one, and when there was, when we weren’t quite certain, the line of the churches was that the teaching of evolution and Darwinism should be banned altogether. They didn’t want equal time then. Notice the switching of their gears. When they were strong enough to try and ban it, that’s what they wanted to do. Now they’re not strong enough, they’ve come up with a weedy, feeble, ingratiating whine of, “Well, equal time, fair dues, open-mindedness,” and so on, as if there really was a dispute about this. All right, let’s see if we can accommodate them.

I learned about Darwin by studying the debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley. That’s a classic debate. I wasn’t taught it in science class, I was taught it in history class, that’s how I learned. I’ve learned since, as you have, about the debate between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the idol of all morondom, as H.L. Mencken called him, in Dayton, Tenn. I learned about that in history and literature class, not biology class. Keep it out of there, because otherwise we’ll be having people saying, “Well, children, chemistry period is over, but we’ll be doing alchemy in the next half. And put away your astronomy books and get out your astrology charts, because we are ‘open-minded’ in this school,” and other stultifying nonsense that you wouldn’t even get at a madrassah, I shouldn’t think. But if we’re to accept the principle, then let us say to the president and his friends: By all means equal time. Any church that is tax-exempt, therefore any religious group that gets a break from the IRS, any church that is in receipt of any monies at all from the so-called faith-based initiative, must give 50% of its time to the teaching of evolution by natural selection. You might take that back to your communities and tell them to suck on that and see if they like it. Because that’s what they seem to be asking, but are too stupid to realize. We’re not resisting them, we’re on their trail now. We’ve got their number, we’re on their track. They’re the ones who should be scared of us. Don’t you think it’s about time? I do.

I have another challenge. This is my fourth one. We have religion in our midst, and even in our minds. We know where it comes from for an excellent reason: Religion is the first–and is in some ways therefore the worst–chance to explain human nature and the natural order. It was our first attempt at philosophy, just as it was our first attempt at astronomy and biology. We embarked on it in a time of fearful infancy, when we didn’t know that we lived on a rounded planet in a tiny solar system which had a center around which we revolved. It didn’t revolve around us–religion used to preach that mantra. We didn’t know that there were microorganisms that we couldn’t see, but that explained a lot about both our health and our ill-health. We were told we were given dominion over all animals and we were wrong, because there were no dinosaurs in that list, no marsupials, because the people who wrote this didn’t know they existed, and we were certainly never given dominion over microorganisms and we’ll never get that, because they rule!

We were baffled by climatic and cataclysmic events: earthquakes, tidal waves, storms, lightning. All of this was to us terrifying. Religion works as an attempt, then, to make sense of things. We are pattern-seeking mammals, after all. It’s a good thing that we are, because if we weren’t pattern-seeking mammals, our curiosity would have no outlet and we wouldn’t be capable of the great innovations that have liberated us from so many things, including religion. It’s argued by some: “Well, then, give it some credit.” The late Steven Jay Gould said, “Let’s consider religion in one corner and the study of science and reason in another–consider them nonoverlapping magisteria. One does one, one does the other, there’s no need for a conflict.” I think this has become–especially with the extraordinary revolution that we’ve been through in the last 20 years or so in the human and natural sciences, with the work of Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, of course, and many others, a point where we have to say no, this stuff is incompatible–in fact, I prefer to say irreconcilable–with reason, acquisition of knowledge and recent deployment of it.

And I think I’ve found a way. I’m a nonscientist, who’s profited a lot from the studying of this discussion, of putting it to a lay audience in such a way as can be clearly understood. If you like, I’ll share it with you. Do you want me to share? Sharing is such a lovely word, isn’t it? Well, it’s this: I’ve taken the best evidence that I can, most recently the night before last in Georgetown, from Francis Collins who, as you know, completed the Human Genome Project, but who believes himself to be the object of divine design: “I was very impressed once when hiking to find a frozen waterfall that went into three parts, a trinity. I knelt down that very moment” and gave himself, he says, to Jesus, though I don’t see what Jesus has to do with freezing the waterfalls. It could have been Muhammad, it could have been Krishna; he chose the Nazarene. And who therefore demonstrates that, for many people, it is possible to hold apparently irreconcilable ideas in the head at the same time, and who was the man I was very proud to have met, wanted to have even discussed it with.

“Very well,” I asked him, “how long, doctor, do you believe the human species, homo sapiens, after our brief encounters with the Cro-Magnon and the Neanderthals and so on, have been autonomous as homo sapiens on the earth? I’ve heard from Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins maybe it’s as long as 200,000, maybe 240,000 or 250,000 years, or as low as . . . ?” And he said, “As low as 100,000, could only be 100,000.”

I said, OK. I’m Jewish on my mother’s side. I’ll take a hundred. A hundred thousand years then. That’s all I need for this experiment. A hundred thousand years, ladies and gentlemen, of our species born–probably dying a lot, evidently dying a lot in childbirth by killing its mother while doing so, but managing to get born–living, life expectancy for the first 15,000 years probably not more than about 20, 25. Dying of microorganisms we didn’t know were there, dying of our teeth, which were suspiciously too near our brain when they rotted or became infected. Terrified by earthquakes, lightning, floods, famines, inexplicable cataclysmic events. Fighting one another for sex, for food, for shelter, for territory, all of that. Any of you can fill in this bit for yourself as trope. Have a rough picture of what it was like; it’s slow and gradual and much backsliding, but a sort of upward progression to where we are approximately now. Think of the wars now, think of the famines, think of the rapes, think of the gods they had, think of the bears they worshipped and made their skulls into totems. Think of the waterfalls they thought magic. Think of the rocks they thought were special. During all this, they weren’t without god. Believe you me, none of them was. But that didn’t count, didn’t count at all, because heaven watched us like that–all that suffering, death, disease, murder, misery, famine–with folded arms and indifference until 98,000 years had gone by. And so now may be time to intervene. And the best place to do it, the best place to conduct this intervention would not be China, where people can read and make gunpowder, but in Bronze Age Palestine. That would be a good place to implant the idea, by a human sacrifice. Of course. We always do that. And then see if the news can spread in pure form by word of mouth.

Now, I don’t know about you. I’ve debated a lot of religious people now. I know it’s conceivable that in nature there’s such a thing as parthenogenesis, that is, a virgin could conceivably conceive without the rather exquisite preconditions that are thought by some to be so problematic. Why so many gods have been born that way I don’t quite know. I don’t think of the birth canal as a one-way street. I hope neither do you. And since resurrection is so commonplace in the New Testament, happens all the time, if it was commonplace then–it doesn’t seem commonplace now–it would mean it wasn’t particularly special that there was a resurrection there, either. Certainly wouldn’t prove the doctrines of the person who was so resurrected. But I can’t be brought to believe the story I’ve just told you, which must be true if religion is true. If religion is true, that’s what happened to our species. And that’s impossible, and it’s irreconcilable with what we know. It’s incompatible with what we know, it can’t be squared with any concept we can possibly form of scientific knowledge or of the development of our cosmos, biosphere, or species. So we’d be better off without it, even if it preached morality, which it does not.

I listened to Katha Pollitt last night, as I always do when I get the chance. And I agree with her that we have some reason to be optimistic, at least on the territory of these United States, that our enemies are in retreat, that they’re not only beaten in the courts but they’re humiliated in the courts. If you haven’t read my friend Matthew Chapman’s book on the Dover, Penn., case, may I recommend it to you very strongly? Matthew is Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson. He’s a great friend of mine. He’s recently decided to become reinvolved in this matter. He’s basically a filmmaker. He just thought he couldn’t stay out of the argument any longer. He went to Dover, Penn. He sat there for the whole trial, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights. . . . Which is the title of his book, which I recommend. And it just shows how small-town America could throw off this nonsense with some brio. And that’s very much to the good, I think. And there are other indications, as well, of a fight back.

However, if we look at the international picture, I find the situation very worrying. Doesn’t make me optimistic at all. In Russia recently, mobilized by the extremely cynical forces of Vladimir Putin’s party and his security services, the Russian Orthodox Church is back as a real part of the nationalist, autarchic, one-party, Russian chauvinist regime that he wishes to restore after the humiliations we visited on the Greater Russian idea the last few years. At every point where that regime tries to impose itself, you will find a black-draped figure standing next to the KGB man, and in the classroom, too. It’s coming. It could be very, very, very dangerous. It’s very often ignored. When President Bush met Putin and saw he was wearing a crucifix, as you may remember, he said that was the obvious clear proof that the man was a good egg. A form of national suicide, it seems to me, that we have a president so easily taken in by a sadistic expansionist goon who has a clerical militia as part of his campaign to intimidate Georgia, Poland, Chechnya, the Baltic states, Ukraine and beyond that many others. It’s going to be in our future and theocracy’s going to be one of the forms it’s going to take. And it’s nuclear. So think about that if you would for a bit.

Now Iran, here’s another case where religion doesn’t always lead to moral results. In Iran you’re not allowed to execute a female virgin, whatever crime she’s committed. She might have been a member of an opposition group, she might have blasphemed in some way, she might have uncovered her hair in public, who knows what she might have done? But you’re not allowed, even if the death penalty applies, to put her to death if she’s a virgin. So she’s raped by the revolutionary guards in prison, and then she can be executed.

Some people say that without God, people would give themselves permission to do anything. You look at that case and see that with God, only with God, only with the view that God’s on your side, can people give themselves permission to do things that otherwise would be called satanic. That’s what this regime is like. I’ve seen it up close, too. Now our greatest nightmare is about to occur, because even at its worst I think Mr. Putin’s regime is a cynical one. We’re about to see in Iran a coincidence we’ve dreaded for a long time, that of a messianic regime with apocalyptic weaponry. And it’s evidently looking for confrontation in secular society, everywhere from Lebanon to Iraq. It feels it can fight and win, because it feels that a tooth fairy called the twelfth imam, its messiah, is about to return to them. And this is a fantastically dangerous, extraordinarily dangerous state of affairs. To see what the parties of God have been doing to demolish Iraqi civil society is something you can see every day. You don’t need me to tell you about it. You see the messianic settlers on the West Bank trying to bring on the messiah in their way and to bring about the end of days, another phenomenon that has become to us almost too familiar.

Remember again part of our charge against religion, our belief that it is fundamentally wicked and antihuman, is precisely its eschatology. Religion is predicated on the idea that our time here is short and should be shorter, that our job is to bring on the end of days. This is just a veil of tears and guilt and shame. This, the only life we have–the only life we have that contains music and art and literature and solidarity and sex and love–all of this should be swept away. We can’t wait for the end times to come. That’s what they all have to believe.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, of all people, the man who’s thought to be the head of the mildest church of the lot, a few years ago was discussing thermonuclear war (you would have thought, if I’d given you the quote blind, that it was some verminous mullah) and said: “The worst you could do would be to usher people sooner and in their millions into a higher form of life to which they’re destined anyway.” These are the people who say that they lead a flock, and who certainly look like sheep. How much can you tell, by the way, from a religion that refers to its adherents as if they were sheep and its leaders as shepherds? But never mind that for now.

Eschatology is inseparable from religious faith. It wants this to come to an end. It seeks our destruction. It thirsts for it, and it sometimes plans for it. That’s what’s happening to us now, so I am not happy at the way in which these clouds are gathering, not as in the corner of our eye but increasing directly in our vision. And so, rather than just leave you with a pessimistic thought, I want to leave you with one that I hope slightly pisses you off. In Katha’s speech last night, from the literature table that I saw in the back, and in many of the conversations that I’ve had on the side here, I would’ve gotten the impression that we were all met here to tell Jerry Falwell to fuck off. That’s not true at all. I don’t think anyone’s done much more than I have to rubbish the Christian Coalition, to ridicule them, to oppose them, to thrash them in their own heartlands, to denounce them in print. It’s a necessary job, very important to do. But it’s not the whole story.

You haven’t really come out, you haven’t declared yourself bravely to be an atheist and to be defending civilization against clerical barbarism, if all you’ve done is denounce some moon-faced Christian Coalitionist or some bum-faced Jesuit child-molester. That should be the elementary duty of a citizen, and many nonatheists are capable at least of doing that. No, in order to say you’ve taken on the battle, you have to say that you are taking on jihad, the most virulent, the most dangerous, the most evil, the most pernicious, the most systematic attack that secular civilization is currently facing.

Christopher Hitchens earned a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970. The journalist, author and essayist’s many books include For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports (1993), and the 2007 bestseller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He has been Washington editor of Harper’s, and was a contributor to The Nation for 20 years, and writes for many other publications, including Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal and Newsday.

Freedom From Religion Foundation