Monday, January 2, 2012

Christopher Hitchens

[Benzion and I got heated in our argument over libertarianism detailed in the last few posts. But I contacted him on Facebook and it's all water under the bridge. He's now written a reply to my previous post. Within the next few days, I will put up a rebuttal which will address Benzion's libertarian argument in much more detail than my previous posts.]

Over at Jewish Ideas Daily, there was an article accusing Christopher Hitchens of antisemitism. Personally, I thought the author failed to appreciate the nuances in Hitchens's writings, and I made a comment there to that effect. Anyways, sof davar sof, there was a conversation in the comments section and it was said that some of us defending Hitchens from the charge leveled viewed him essentially as a "golden calf." Considering that I have approvingly posted some videos of Hitchens on this blog, I now feel the need to discuss a bit what I actually think about Hitchens.

I once put a comment on a blog to the effect that Hitchens wins all his debates. Looking back, saying something like that without being thoroughly familar with Hitchens' debates was irresponsible. I haven't watched his debate with, say, William Lane Craig (who is supposed to be one of the sharpest debaters on the market and is largely agreed to have defeated Hitchens) it's not right for me to say that he always wins. And after watching more of Hitchens, I have to face it, Hitchens' act has gotten a bit stale. His brother Peter put it well:

I'd...say that my brother gives more or less the same speech at all these debates, whoever his opponent is. I've joked for years that there was a major problem with the sound system at our clash in Grand Rapids, which meant that the speakers could not hear what the other one was saying properly (at one point I sat on the edge of the stage trying to catch what he was saying, and it was still so difficult to hear that I pondered going to sit in the audience. I probably should have done, and stayed there). While this bothered me quite a lot, it didn't trouble him, since he would have said pretty much the same thing whatever I said, and his assembled fan club (mystified by their very recent discovery of my very existence, and none too pleased by that discovery) would have whooped with joy over it.
Like many jokes, this is founded in truth. If I hear that thing about North Korea and the Celestial Dictatorship one more time, or the one about 'Created sick and commanded to be well', my eyelashes will start to ache.

Don't get me wrong, when he's on top of his game, he's on top of his game (and I actually liked the Grand Rapids debate, thought it was one of his stronger performances). But the point is that Hitchens can be dull, repetitive, and cliche.

The cliche bit is the important part because that's what IMHO keeps him from being more convincing. "Cliche" I think well describes his book, god is Not Great. In that book, Hitchens eloquently shows us regions where religions have provided tremendous obstacles to stability. He shows how these religions have corrupted people and ravaged nations. His bekius is tremendous; science, history, politics, Maimonides...if you read this book and don't come away thinking "I need to read more," well, we're on different wavelengths. But every specific critique of religion he has is....well, simple, cliche, old. Two examples: When discussing Judaism, it is not uncommon for Hitchens to mention shelo asani goy, shelo asani aved, shelo asani isha. When discussing Christianity, the New Testament contradictions are an important argument. Now, these arguments are extraordinarily well known. They are made by your average questioning baalei teshuva and born-againers, respectively. So of course, the religious have answers. But Hitchens doesn't bother refuting or even mentioning the apologetics, he just points and snorts. Which is fine if he's writing a book for those of us atheists who want some guilty pleasure (and admittedly, I did enjoy the book), but I would think that theists aren't going to be convinced by him just restating the obvious problems; our perspective has to be explained. Good examples of work which addresses specific concerns of the theists come from Richard Carrier and John Loftus. As for the other New Atheists, I think Dawkins' book can be used as a reference guide for refuting various common religious claims and I found Harris's work on the concept of faith-in-a-specific-religion to be thought-provoking (I realize many won't). Hitchens doesn't seem to present anything most Western theists won't have heard before.
I have a feeling this post may not endear me to my fellow atheist cohorts, but after the Jewish Ideas Daily discussion, I felt that I should make clear that I don't understand the appeal of much of Hitchens's attacks on religion. Again, don't get me wrong, he can be really great, and I've taken lines he uses and added them to my arsenal because they can be really amazing (e.g. "That which is asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence," "our sun goes into a red giant, then a red dwarf, we become a crisp. That'll be nothingness programmed instead of somethingness. Some design, huh?"). And Hitchens is a very interesting, intriguing figure...a good writer, interesting views on politics, and on my side with the religion thing. But I just don't have that awe for him which he seems to have inspired in so many of my fellow atheists.


  1. Guys like Dawkins and Hitchens mainly exist to gain attention for their cause, unfortunately it's the wrong kind of attention, and a large part of why atheists still get a bad rap from lots of otherwise moderate and tolerant religious peopl...e. Also I think you are approaching his work from the wrong way, he doesn't really have any sort of academic background in any sort of theology, in fact pretty much none of the really big name atheists do, so they tend to not be equipped to write the sort of thing you seem to be looking for.

  2. Hitchens tends to treat the extreme positions and single opinions as though they were normative. For example, he constantly harps on the Rambam’s opinion that milah is intended to reduce sexual passion, and uses that to claim that male circumcision is equal to female circumcision. Leaving aside that the reason it’s done has no bearing on whether the two are comparable, the Rambam is a single opinion, and his opinion reflects hi attempt to come up with rational reasons for all of the mitzvos. Yet Hitchens acts as though the reason the Rambam gives is THE reason for milah. It’s intellectually dishonest.

  3. " article accusing Christopher Hitchens of antisemitism"
    After reading Hitch-22 I thought that Hitchens was part Jewish. Did I read it wrong?

  4. No, you're right. Mother's side is Jewish. Halacha lemaaseh, Mr. Hitchens is a Jew.

  5. Although his arguments against theism aren't always the best arguments, the way he expresses these arguments and the energy he brings to his debates are unmatched (IMO) by any other new atheists I have seen in debates.

    That is why I like him.

  6. Hitchens is Jewish? Ah - that explains everything!

  7. Christopher Hitchens is far more than just a "good writer". It's like saying the Grand Canyon offers a 'good view'. Hitchens is an extraordinary writer and brilliant debater. He may well repeat himself but I don't hold that against him. I have been inspired by him for perhaps the past 10 years. The world will be a lesser place without him.

  8. William Lane Craig 'defeated' Christopher Hitchens? lol not the debate I watched...