Christopher Hitchens: Address to American Atheists

Renowned author and steadfast atheist Christopher Hitchens was recently forced to cancel his appearance at the American Atheists convention due to his esophageal cancer. He wrote to them the following letter, as was published on P.Z. Myers’ blog Pharyngula [link]:

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

    Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency. 

      That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private. 

    Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. 

       As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.

    Sincerely

Christopher Hitchens

Defining Atheism

It seems to me that a great many people have a somewhat inaccurate understanding of the term ‘atheist’, even many who themselves identify as atheists. In the discussions I’ve had with people, the popular definition of ‘atheist’ seems to be a person who adamantly refuses to acknowledge the existence of god. There is, of course, the gentler alternative to ‘atheist’, and that is ‘agnostic’. An agnostic, as it is commonly understood, is someone who does not accept the existence of god but is open to the possibility. These definitions are partially true, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear up the matter if I may.

The dictionary definition of ‘atheist’ is ‘one who denies the existence of God‘. Specifically, that’s from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. ‘Agnostic’ is defined as ‘a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or nonexistence of God or a god‘, in case you were wondering. These are a little bit closer, but I still think we could do better. First, let’s look at atheism. If you dissect the word, it is very simply the prefix ‘a’ meaning ‘not’ followed by ‘theist’. Therefore, I will argue that the term ‘atheist’ simply means someone who does not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. It just means ‘non-theist’, nothing more and nothing less. When most people hear the word ‘atheist’, they typically do not think of the term as it actually is, but rather they conjure thoughts of an ‘anti-theist’. An anti-theist is a person who actively opposes religions and the notion of the existence of god or gods. This is a common mistake. People also misuse the term ‘antisocial’ in the same way. In this case, people really mean to say ‘asocial’, as an asocial person is simply one who is detached from society in the way that the speaker means, while an antisocial person is someone who is actively trying to disrupt society, an extreme example being a sociopath.

‘Agnostic’, in the same way, simply means ‘not knowing’. As it is traditionally applied to the question of the existence of deities or the supernatural, an agnostic is simply a person who recognizes that the human mind, magnificent as it may be, is still limited. I once heard a Christian apologist ask the question, ‘Have you ever tried to explain physics to a dog?’ This is the same idea. He was trying to justify God by saying that since the human brain is limited, and so that which exists beyond our understanding must be God. This is, of course, a logical fallacy, but the principle of agnosticism is still the same. There may very well be concepts which are beyond human comprehension. Would we be foolish to ignore this? I think so.

Atheism is a blanket term that encompasses agnosticism, anti-theism, and every other word used to describe people who do not identify with religions. Agnosticism is a form of atheism. So is anti-theism. Freethinkers, secular humanists, they all fall under the parent category of atheists. This may be an unfamiliar or uncomfortable concept to people, but I will argue that it is truth.

That said, I will declare that I consider myself to be all of the adjectives listed above. I am atheist in that I am not religious in any way (atheism, by the way, is not a religion and requires no faith as some people might have you believe, but that is another topic for another day). I am agnostic in that I recognize our species’ intellectual limitations, even among the most brilliant of us, but that this does not justify resorting to the notion of god simply by default. I am anti-theist in that I believe religious belief to be harmful and dangerous, as well as the single greatest hindrance to human progress. I am a freethinker in that I am not afraid to ask questions and approach any topic with a sense of honest criticism. I am a secular humanist in that I strive to better humanity’s prosperity and well being, as well as to help us better understand who we are in this world and what role we play in nature. I am generally not one to carry such personal labels, as I feel that this type of thing typically only serves to hinder one’s personal potential, but these are exceptions. These I wear with great pride.

Intolerance

A while back I posted a link to the following TouTube video on my personal Facebook site:

I accompanied this posting with the text, ‘The sooner we as a species can learn to live peacefully without the modern mythologies we call religions, the better off we will all be.’ An old friend of mine, who happens to be Christian, saw fit to leave a comment stating that I was ‘just intolerant.’ At first, I admit I was a bit taken aback by his remark. This was a person with whom there have never been unkind words of any kind between us. And yet, here was a comment meant to insult me.

I don’t generally like to dwell on thoughts that I feel are ultimately meaningless, such as personal opinions that I find discomforting. This comment, as it happens, seemed like something that I should just let glaze over me and then I would move on, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was only that way on the surface. In contemplating this remark, this declaration of my own lack of tolerance, it was not difficult for me to reach the conclusion that he was correct. I am indeed intolerant. Moreover, although he clearly meant it to be detrimental, I see it as a good thing.

My intolerance is directed not at the people who practice religion so much as it is the dishonesty that lies at the core of every religion’s doctrines. There are many things that I don’t believe are true, such as the existence of gods or the supernatural, but I do very strongly believe in the importance of honesty between people, in any context and at any scale. This is my essential grievance with religions: that it is demonstrably false and yet it insists that it is true.

Dishonesty is, at its core, among the most purely selfish of acts. When a person or organization is dishonest, it is ultimately to serve their own interests and agendas. In this way it is a practice that entirely disregards the well being of others. This is why I am intolerant of it. We as a species will only survive, let alone thrive, under the principles of honesty. The largest religions are based on superstitions constructed thousands of years ago, and newer religions are no different except that their superstitions haven’t lingered for quite as long. Superstitions are, by nature, dishonest. Thus, religions are revolved around lies. This is why I am proud to declare that I am intolerant of religions and the lies that they represent. I am in the right to declare this.

Lots Happening

There has been a LOT going on in recent weeks here in Stumptown. First, the Portland Humanist Film Festival was held from Oct 8-10 and was a big success, and then just last week we were visited by Sam Harris, who gave a talk on his new book The Moral Landscape. The book focuses on how science and secularism promote strong moral values. I was personally involved with the operations of both events, and am proud to say that I had the honor of introducing Mr Harris himself. Good things are happening!