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Opening – Christopher Hitchens

Thank you very much, Joe, for that slightly misleading introduction to someone who may no longer be a socialist but still vibrates to Marxism.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming. I think I’ll be able to be reasonably terse given the very heavy artillery that follows me on our side. I think it might have been felt when I was chosen that the case for atheism should not be made by the spokesman for its moderate wing, Richard Dawkins. It might be okay to have at least one extremist on the panel. And I’ll begin at once by recalling an exchange I had recently in Colorado Springs with a spokesman of America’s Evangelical broadcasting wing, a much overrated but nonetheless significant for sin American politics. This broadcaster asked me in response to my own statement of unbelief, he said, “I insist that you answer the following question and that you answer it with a yes or a no.” I braced myself. I accepted the challenge. And unseen, he said, “You want to imagine yourself in a strange city where you’ve never been before. You ought to imagine nightfall coming on, and you to be without friends or sucker in this town. And you two, you want to ask yourself whether you would feel safer or less safe when you saw a dozen men coming towards you in the dusk, if you were to know that they had recently come from a prayer meeting.

This is the… I’m, I’m, I think I can justifiably say I’m relaying to you comrades, friends, brothers, sisters, the challenge that was put by the religious to me. You’ll see it once it’s not a yes, no answer. You can’t give a yes, no answer to that, but I accept it anyway. I said, ‘Very well, I won’t give a Sesame Street reply, but just without leaving the letter B. I have been in that situation in Bombay, in Belfast, in Beirut, in Belgrade, in Baghdad, and many other places too. And I won’t tell you about all of them, but let me just, let me just as it were fill in some of those latent blanks. Um, in Belfast, the capital city of one of the provinces of this our United Kingdom, as everybody here knows, everything culturally, educationally, economically, politically, socially has been very gravely for at least a quarter of a century. Excuse me, at least half a century and maybe more since partition and before that. This partition is both the outcome and the cause of sectarian warfare in this town.

By the simple fact that there are people there who are willing to kill not just one another, but one another’s children on the basis of what kind of Christian they are. Horrible things are done not just in pubs and clubs, but on the streets, on housing estates, on university campuses in that city. Still, despite the relatively good news we’ve had today, where the situation remains dominated by barbaric sectarian party leaders on this, and no other basis. Both churches demanded their children are sent to separate schools. They each agree with the other that, above all things, their own children must be protected from the faith of another faith. I don’t think I need to elaborate very much more on how horrendous the consequences of that have been and how they are enshrined, by the way, in our own Constitution, which mandates that our own head of the church is also the head of the state and of the Armed Forces, with all the ludicrous Windsor consequences that you get if you found a national church on the family values of Henry VII.

These conditions, which are farcical in England, Wales, and Scotland, are tragic and ugly only a few minutes flying time from where we sit. If I pass on from Belfast to say, Baghdad, where I’ve recently been, and without reopening any of the arguments about the rightness or otherwise of the Coalition intervention in Mesopotamia, I think it can be granted by any fair-minded person that what was most needed in Iraq after 30 years of fascism and war was a period of reflection, a short interlude of calm during which Iraqis could look about themselves and decide perhaps whom they’d like to vote, perhaps what kind of country they’d like to live in, what kind of federal system they might wish to evolve, and to do so unmolested by violence or terror. The parties of God have vetoed every hope of that process. The parties of God now have the Iraqi people in their jaws, and they’re saying to them, “It’s not enough just to kill foreigners or to rail against Jews or Christians or secularists. That’s nothing like enough.” It’s only in Iraq, not only, mainly, chiefly in Iraq, that it’s considered perfectly all right, in fact, a religious duty to blow up the mosques, to destroy the religious schools of other Muslims of the Muslims of another school.

Not unlike the pattern of Belfast, it’s not enough to have faith. You must have the right version of your own faith or risk death, mutilation, and humiliation. And the destruction, the inviseration, the torture of Iraqi society is something that all of us can read about every day. Suppose we’re to go to Beirut, the pearl of the Levant, the most civilized and beautiful and cultured city of the Middle East, and to see what happens when, for politicized reasons, the sectarian Constitution is in place which says that the president of Lebanon must always be a Maronite Christian, that the speaker of its Parliament must always be a Shi’ite, that its vice president must always be a Sunni, that the Druze must have their share, and so on, leaving out at the very bottom, I’m afraid, such forces as Kurds and Armenians. By making everyone defined in their citizenship by their faith, do I need to elaborate what that’s done to bankrupt, to beggar, to disfigure, and to degrade what could have been an ideally plural and diverse and happy society?

Remaining with letter B, shall I say Banja Luka, shall I say Belgrade, or just say Bosnia again, one of the most civilized enclaves of the Balkans, for many years protected by a secular Constitution under the remains of what had been the secular and democratic republic, and just look what happens when it is decided that it is a matter of faith that determines your citizenship, your allegiance, your identity, your nature, your rights. See the recrudescence in the Europe of the late 20th and early 21st century of Catholic fascist parties we thought we’d left behind at Nuremberg, the Ustashe. The recrudescence of forces like the Chetniks, the Serbian Orthodox fascist, who took exactly the same view except the other way around. See the craven way in which our spineless media, which always defers to people of faith, say that it was Serbs who shelled Sarajevo or Croats who shelled Mostar, when what they should have been saying was today the Christian Orthodox militia bombarded an open city around the clock, or yesterday the Catholic forces shelled Mostar from dawn till dusk. They didn’t do it because it’s a matter of taste.

We’re supposed to respect people of faith, and we’re supposed to respect them while they do that and do that and make this sort of excuse. There aren’t enough words in my lexicon at any rate to express the contempt that I think any right-thinking person must feel for this conscription of this kind of medieval barbarism. Joan will tell me when I’ve got a minute. I don’t know whether I’m yet trespassing on my rivals and my allies’ time, but if I was to add Bombay to this list, the city that was very nearly ruined by the sectarian partition of India in 1947-1948, where once again people were told it’s a matter of faith what kind of Indian you are, you may have to become a Pakistani if you’re Muslim, you have to lose your life on the proposition you may not just be a Hindu. Bombay more or less survived this, the terrifying ethnic cleansing and the pogrom that ensued when the subcontinent was mutilated and maimed and partitioned on this basis. In the hopes of a genuine Indian unity and independence ruined by way of appeasement of people of faith, but Bombay has sort of recovered until recently when now its name has been changed, its minority citizens persecuted, intimidated, driven out by a new Hindu nationalist party, the Shiv Sena, that says that again, if you don’t follow the right God, if you don’t accept the supernatural as a real force in everyday life, you are not worth whatever it takes to become or to remain or be treated as an ordinary democratic civilized human being in again one of the great cities of Asia.

Now, it’s not part of my case, and I’m sure it’s not part of Professor Grayling’s or Professor Dawkins’s either, to say that religion is the reason for all of this or the exclusive or sole reason for all of it. I think it would be crude and reductionist to say that. But who is going to argue? I’ll be fascinated to see who is going to argue that the matter of faith, the religious allegiance, that the preachings of religion have not in all these cases gravely exacerbated, gravely deepened, gravely poisoned, and prolonged all of these things that have made our tenuous civilization extremely difficult to defend, uphold, maintain, let alone to advance. I don’t believe this case could be made. That’s for a simple reason because religion is not provided to us by revelation. It doesn’t come from the heavens. It doesn’t come from the beyond. It doesn’t come from the divine. It’s man-made, and it shows. It shows very well that religion is created, invented, imposed by a species half a chromosome away from the chimpanzee. It shows, doesn’t it?

Well, why do we deceive ourselves on this point, and is there anywhere? I’m now going to wind up. Is there anywhere of the places I’ve mentioned, and I exempt Basra, and all the other bees I could take you around, where it wouldn’t be enormously welcomed if there was a mass conversion to secularism or a mass adoption of the secular idea and principle of the principles of Bertrand Russell, who once spoke famously from this platform, of Thomas Paine, of Thomas Jefferson, of Voltaire, and others? And I’ll close by saying that I want you to be on your guard against two false issues in this respect, and I’ll be very brief. When I mentioned those gentlemen, and I could mention some ladies too in this connection, like Mary Wollstonecraft, don’t let anyone tell you that, “Oh well, secular tyranny is just as bad after all.

They’ve been fascist and communist dictatorships which have been just as revolting. Fascism, as you know, was supported by the Catholic Church all through its life and after it had died, and still is defended by it. One of the leaders of the Axis was actually the Japanese leader, was actually a god. There’s no way of saying fascism and national socialism when the actors was secular, and in the case of Stalinism and Maoism, in the Khmer Rouge, the same mistake is made. And religion is made out of man. It’s the religious impulse itself that I think we need to oppose, to criticize, to criticize in ourselves as well as in others, the argument from faith, in other words, the argument from certainty. So those of us who maintain this may not be described my closing point as fundamentalists or secularists. Certain sheep and demagogic and opportunist forces have recently been suggesting. We do believe in evidence. We do believe in skepticism. We do believe in reason. We hold our views with as much conviction and principle as any God botherer does, but we are open to the argument. And we’re going to prove it tonight to you. And don’t let anyone dare to imply there’s a moral equivalence between us and the Fanatics and the fools and those who think they know God’s Will and can tell you what it is who are our enemies and your enemies too. So I beg to propose the notion that stands in our name. Thank you.

Audience Questions and Answers

Question: Hi, could I ask Professor Grayling, Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens if they are strict materialists or physicalists? By this, I mean that absolutely nothing exists except the physical Universe. Or, if they are willing to allow for the possibility of a further reality or, indeed, realities other than the physical Universe.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, as the least qualified, I think I could probably be the most brief. I don’t believe anyone on the other side can tell me that there’s a non-mature universe. It’s a matter of Occam’s razor, really, ladies and gentlemen. Those who say they know that there’s a God, which is what a religious person must believe, they can’t say it’s optional. They can’t say it’s another name for human rights or charity. They must say they do believe there is something supernatural that provides faith. They can’t get out of it like the rabbi tried to by confusing it with good works. They must also say if they’re religious, but God knows what we should do, what we should eat, with whom we should have sex, in what positions, and so forth. If they don’t say that, they’re not religious, I’m very sorry.

Now, I think it’s very easy to tell right away. I may not know, in fact, I don’t believe with my cranial capacity, even Professor Dawkins’s cranial capacity, it’s possible to know what’s happening with dark material. We may never be able to know, but don’t put your trust in anyone who says that they do. Those people are eliminated from the argument right away. They cannot be right. They have been practicing an imposture on the human species for centuries, for millennia. We happen to live in the lucky period where their claims have been found to be false or superfluous or super irrogatory. There is, therefore, no other way in which you can decide your virginite.

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